Scientific crafting: DIY manipulatives to use in your laboratory

What is a manipulative? Simply put, they are physical models that allow students to physically engage with a scientific concept before performing the experiment. These models are very important teaching tools in the science classroom, as they represent a low-stakes way for students to explore abstract thinking. Research studies have even been performed to show the effectiveness of students creating their own fiber crafts to reinforce their STEM learning. Below are some resources that can help you to create manipulatives in your classroom using yarn, 3D printers, or LED lights.

Loudness: this animation gives an impression of how loudness information is summed over a period of about 200 ms before being sent to the auditory cortex. Rburtonresearch via Wikimedia Commons
  1. Crocheted science by @thepurplelilac: If you crochet, and you love amigurumi, the Japanese art of creating small stuffed yarn critters, Tahani Baakdhah MD PhD has some amazing models for you. As a researcher, Dr. Haakdhah studies the neuroscience of vision. These amigurumi models were developed as a way to communicate scientific information to the general public, but the also satisfy that creative and artistic side that many scientists have. We especially love the pairing of this neuron with its neurotransmitter Glutamate (at right). Older students will love to think about the parts of the models and how they relate to biological function, while younger students might just like to hold on to a giant soft neuron when they need to calm down a little bit.
  2. Sound wave art: The human body perceives the transmission of sound waves from the environment using the auditory system, which is composed of the sensory organs of the ear and the part of the brain that deciphers that signal. A great way to combine physiology and physics is to combine the two to create “sound wave art.” Students record short audio clips using free software and analyze amplitude, frequency, and wavelength. Explorations can include having students say the same thing and comparing the sound waves, reenforcing that although each voice is perceived differently by the auditory system, the brain can interpret the signals to decipher the words. Pair this with our human ear manipulative to bring the lesson full circle.
  3. 3-D printable DNA models: In the cell, nucleotides are connected when DNA polymerase forms a chemical bond between the sugar of one nucleotide and the phosphate group of the next nucleotide. The polymerase is using an existing strand of DNA as the template to build the new strand of DNA. This can be a difficult concept to visualize in the classroom without models or videos to explain. We love the 3D printed model, linked above, because students build the sugar-phosphate backbone, pair nucleotides, and mark the 3′ and 5′ ends of the DNA double helix. If you do not have access to a 3-D printer, we also have a paper DNA model that can be built in your classroom.
  4. Using paper circuits to enhance paper models: Students are often asked to create models of natural phenomenon through their own drawings or using paper systems like Origami Organelles. Again, we can incorporate STEM learning principles by integrating paper circuits into these models. Students can design circuits with copper tale and LED lights to “highlight” specific parts of the model. For example, a model of the heart could have red LEDs placed in the areas of the heart where blood is oxygenated, and blue LEDS in areas where blood is not oxygenated.
  5. Jello Petri Plates for quadrant streak practice: Microbiology concepts can be difficult for students who are new to the lab. This is why we love making scientific Jell-O to have them practice the skills before performing the experiment. These plates will be great to practice quadrant streaking and also picking individual colonies. See our video below for the directions!
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