Building STEM into Your Holiday Tradition

By: Kristen Antosh

Writer and Blogger

Grab the graham crackers, mix up the frosting and pile on the candy! It’s gingerbread house making season!

The amount of science, engineering and art involved in the process of building a gingerbread house is incredible, and it makes for a fun opportunity to work in some ‘STEM’ concepts with your kids! You could go all out and make your own gingerbread and frosting by hand, but if you’re short on time this season there are plenty of gingerbread house kits available!

Here are some ideas you can incorporate into your gingerbread house making tradition this holiday season:

Explain the function of the materials: 

The frosting acts as the foundation for the gingerbread house as well as the “bonding agent,” glue or cement that holds the house together. The gingerbread (or graham crackers) acts as the walls and roof of the structure.

Introduce the concept of viscosity: 

Viscosity is the measure of resistance of a liquid to flow. The frosting can’t be too thin (low viscosity) or too thick (high viscosity). It must be the perfect viscosity in order to hold the graham cracker walls and ceiling together. Take a small sample of the frosting, then add water and mix it to demonstrate and compare different levels of viscosity.

Elasticity – it’s not just for rubber bands

The gingerbread (or graham crackers) must have some elasticity (the ability to keep its shape) while the heavy candy pieces are placed on top of its roof so that it does not collapse. Demonstrate this by using the extra gingerbread or graham cracker pieces and bending them slightly. They will bend slightly without cracking if you are careful!

Gravity at work:

Show your kids gravity in action by placing a piece of candy on the gingerbread house without frosting and then with frosting. Explain that the frosting helps the candy “overcome” the forces of gravity. 

Watch out for buckling:

Buckling is a real concern in the construction world. Show them buckling by pushing a plastic ruler on both ends. The center of the ruler will “buckle.” Buckling could be caused by moisture in the gingerbread (or graham cracker) causing it to bend. If one of the pieces of gingerbread begins to bend, that is called buckling.  

Do what the pros do and use the engineering design process: 

If your kids are older, research the engineering design process together and incorporate some steps like examining what makes a great “concrete-like” frosting recipe. For younger kids, ask them to “conceptualize” and create their preliminary design on paper – in other words, draw their idea!

There are endless possibilities for creativity when making your gingerbread house! And your children will appreciate the reward of eating their creation at the end!  

Happy holidays!