Cardboard Arcades

A few years ago, a young boy took the world by storm with his inspiring cardboard arcade, Caine’s Arcade. Now, many people are joining in the fun by creating their own cardboard arcades. Whether they are collaborative efforts or just made to be tabletop fun, cardboard arcades are a great way to upcycle everyday materials and merge storytelling and simple machines. According to one of our favorite online video game design tools, Gamestar Mechanic, there are five elements of game design:

  1. Space: The look and feel of a game from the design of its environment.
  2. Components: The parts of the game, such as characters, mazes, enemies, etc.
  3. Mechanics: The actions in the game, such as jumping and collecting.
  4. Goals: The players complete tasks in order to achieve points and win the game.
  5. Rules: The guide and instructions for how the game should be played.

Whether designing digital video games or non-digital cardboard games, these 5 elements of game design are needed to create games that are engaging and fun. Think about the games that you see when you walk into Chuck E. Cheese’s or other arcade settings. You are immediately drawn to games with bright colors but you might be hesitant to waste a token on a game that doesn’t look like fun or make sense. Some times it’s best to start discussing the 5 elements of game design by looking at simple cardboard arcade game examples (Pinball Game, Foosball Game, Plinko, Pachinko, Cardboard Skeeball). We like to have our own tabletop examples available for students to examine, which allows them to really discuss the 5 elements of game design and to gain hands-on exploration of the simple machines that make the games work. Once they talk about successful and unsuccessful game elements, they can delve in deeper to the examples to see how they are made and talk about how they could recreate their own versions. Then we give our students the following open-ended challenge (note: We do cardboard arcades as a culminating project after our students have completed some hands-on cardboard construction with simple machines):

Design Challenge: Keeping in mind the 5 elements of game design, use upcycling materials to build your own arcade game that fits on a tabletop and has at least one simple machine.

  1. Sketch ideas and write about how simple machines and the 5 elements of game design will be used.
  2. Share with the group and discuss.
  3. Post-it Note Feedback: Everyone gives feedback to each other by using a post-it to write one thing you like and one suggestion for improvement (has to be actionable).
  4. Build!!!!! Inspire the students to really consider how they can transform the recyclable materials to create added functionality and challenge.
  5. User Testing: In groups of 3, students will test each other’s games and provide feedback on the 5 elements.
  6. Redesign (as needed)
  7. Play! A classroom arcade can be done in many ways. Whether its simply an hour of free-play or opening the arcade up to another classroom or a friends and family arcade night, letting the students share their arcade creations with others is priceless. Our kids have even gone so far as to create their own tickets and prizes!

Other Resources to Consider:

Cardboard Catapult Levers

Who doesn’t love the Angry Birds game? With the swipe of you finger on a touch screen you can sling silly little bird creatures toward teetering towers and watch them crumble as you earn precious points. These Angry Bird slingshots are modern day catapults, which are a simple machine called a lever. Catapults were the height of military sophistication back in the medieval age. These contraptions helped warriors to easily throw large heavy rocks at their enemies over great distances. (For background on simple machines, please read our previous post about ways to introduce the idea of simple machines and how you can “upcycle” everyday materials you already have access to.)

Almost any object can become a lever when it is rests upon or rotates around a fulcrum. By placing an object (load or resistance) on one side and applying pressure (force or effort) on the other side, the lever presses against or rotates around the fulcrum and moves the load. There are three classes of levers which depend upon the placement of the fulcrum and force (learn more about levers here on BrainPop). We like to demonstrate the most recognizable lever, a seesaw, using a paint stick stirrer (lever) and an empty toilet paper tube (fulcrum). When the fulcrum is placed in the middle of the lever you can apply gentle force to one side and watch it raise the load from the other side. If the fulcrum is moved away from the middle of the lever it alters the amount of force needed to move the load. If a lot of force is applied it turns our lever into a launcher. You can glue a plastic soda cap to one end of the paint stirrer stick and launch cotton balls or pom-poms into the air to demonstrate. This PBS Kids video is a another quick way to demonstrate a basic lever.

Levers can be even more fun when you create additional force by adding a spring, which is what truly gives a catapult lever its power. There are many types of catapult designs that range in complexity. There is even a group of people who make their own catapults to launch pumpkins each year (watch the Science Channel video here). You can create your own powerful tabletop catapult using a pencil as a lever, a twisted rubber band spring, and a sturdy box as your fulcrum (based on this tutorial by Lorriane at Ikat Bag). Let’s get ready to launch!

Gather Materials:

  • Medium-sized sturdy box for the base
  • Small cardboard box (matchbox, section of egg carton or scrap cardboard to make launching basket)
  • Thick rubber band (needs to be strong enough to be used as a spring)
  • Pencil (or wooden dowel rod)
  • Toothpicks (or wooden dowel rod cut to two pieces about 3″ each)
  • Pom-Poms (the load)
  • Scissors (or xacto knife)
  • Tape (masking tape or duct tape)
  • Optional decorative elements (markers, paint, feathers, etc.)
  • Consider using a yard stick on the floor to measure distance

Make It:

  1. Tape the basket to the end of the pencil. You can use a section of an egg carton, a matchbox, or scrap cardboard. (This is the basket to hold your load and the pencil is the lever or arm of your catapult.)
  2. Stand the box tall and remove one side of your box. (This will allow you to work inside of the box.)
  3. Cut or fold a notch into the top of the box. (Your pencil lever will rest against this notch later.)
  4. Cut a small slit in the middle of both sides of the box. The small slits should line up with the notch you cut/folded into the top of the box. (You will attach your rubber band spring here later.)
  5. Thread the rubber band through the small slits on the two sides of the box. Secure the rubberband with toothpicks or wooden dowels on the outside of the box. Make sure your rubber band is sturdy. If it is too loose it will not work very well. (This will become your rubber band spring that will provide resistance to your pencil lever later.)
  6. Twist the rubberband in the opposite direction that you want your pencil lever to launch. Slide the end of your pencil lever in between the two strands of twisted rubber band.
  7. Hold the box with one hand while you use the other hand to pull the lever down to the table and release. The lever should swing to the top of the box and rest in your cut/folded notch.
  8. Practice launching cotton balls and discuss the variables of the catapult:
    1. Remember that the twisted tension of the rubber band is what generates the force.
    2. The direction that you twist the rubber band is opposite of the direction you want to launch.
    3. The height of the pencil lever impacts your angle and distance.


  • Record your observations while launching different materials (i.e. cotton balls, pom-poms, wadded piece of paper). Consider measuring distance, angle, and speed.
  • With two teams, build your own cardboard Medieval castle to protect your catapults and see how many times you can infiltrate the other team’s castle in 1 minute.
  • Use pom-poms to create your own Angry Birds and use them to knock down cardboard box towers.

Design Experiments:

  • What happens if you make a longer lever?
  • What happens if you make a deeper notch in the top of the box?
  • What happens if you use a tighter rubber band?

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

Balloon-Powered Vehicles

Balloons are super fun to play with. Almost every kid has blown up a balloon, let it go, and giggled as it chaotically flies to the ground. Though this is a common experience for kids, rarely have they discussed it in terms of the science behind it (when the air rushes to escape the balloon it causes thrust and propulsion similar to a rocket). When you attach the balloon to something that can attempt to control it’s path and that is when you can begin to see the true power and energy of the simple air that they put into the balloon (watch this video that compares balloons and rockets for more info).

Using the simple power of the balloon, you can easily construct a moving vehicle using simple machine wheel and axles. For background on this, please read our previous post about ways to introduce the idea of simple machines and how you can “upcycle” everyday materials you already have access to. Combining the power of the balloon and the movement of the wheel and axles, you can turn almost anything into a moving vehicle (i.e. small boxes, plastic soda bottles, berry cartons, etc.). We like to begin with building a very basic balloon-powered car to ensure that everyone successfully creates functioning wheel and axle combinations. Then we like to open up the challenge to allow them to choose any recyclable materials they want and build an open-ended balloon-powered car of their choice. The open-ended challenge provides a great opportunity to discuss design considerations and makes for very unique classroom drag races. Both activities are outlined below.


Gather Materials:

  • Balloons
  • Cardboard (you will need 3″x6″ for each base and reserve scraps for the wheels)
  • Tape (strong tape like Duct Tape works best)
  • Rulers
  • Pencils
  • Scissors (Xacto knives or box cutters optional)
  • Plastic drinking straws
  • Bamboo skewer sticks
  • Plastic soda bottle caps
  • Optional decorative elements (markers, paint, feathers, etc.)
  • Place tape on the floor to create a racetrack. Consider using a yard stick alongside to show distance for the students to compare.

Make It: (based on this Sick Science video tutorial)

  1. Create a cardboard base that is 3″x6″.
  2. Measure and cut two 3″ pieces of straw.
  3. Tape the 3″ straw pieces to the bottom of the 3″x6″ cardboard base. These will hold your axles.
  4. Cut off the end of one balloon.
  5. Place the balloon over the end of a (new) straw and tape it to create an airtight connection.
  6. Tape the straw to the top of the cardboard base. Be sure that you do not tape the balloon because it needs to expand and contract.
  7. Measure and cut two 4″ pieces of bamboo skewer. (Be careful as you cut them with scissors.) These are your axles.
  8. Place the 4″ bamboo skewer pieces inside the 3″ straw pieces on the bottom of the cardboard base.
  9. Use a plastic soda cap to trace and cut 4 circles onto scrap cardboard. These will be your wheels.
  10. Use the leftover bamboo skewer stick to carefully poke one hole in the center of each of your 4 cardboard wheels.
  11. Attach the cardboard wheels to the axles.
  12. “Fuel up” your racer by inflating your balloon. Carefully pinch the straw to hold the air until you are ready for your car to go.
  13. Place your balloon-powered car on the ground and let it go.
  14. Discuss:
    1. Is anyone’s car faster than the others? Why?
    2. How do the wheel and axles function to move the car?
    3. How far does it go? What could make it go farther?
    4. What type of path does it travel? What could make it go straighter?
    5. What happens if you change the size of the wheels?
    6. What happens if you change the chassis (cardboard base) by using a different material (i.e. a soda bottle) or change the angle of the chassis?
    7. What happens if you change the length of the exhaust (straw connected to balloon)? How does that impact the car’s thrust?


Gather Materials:

  • Balloons
  • Tape, glue
  • Rulers
  • Pencils
  • Scissors (Xacto knives or box cutters optional)
  • Bamboo skewer sticks, toothpicks, and/or round wooden dowel craft sticks
  • Plastic drinking straws
  • Miscellaneous recyclable materials (plastic soda bottles and caps, yogurt cups, small boxes, empty toilet paper tubes, etc)
  • Optional decorative elements (markers, paint, feathers, etc.)

Make It:

  1. Encourage students to base their design on what they learned from the basic balloon-powered car above. Ask them to consider:
    1. How does weight play a role in speed? distance? path?
    2. How could you add more power? (more balloons, etc.)
    3. How could you design the car for increased speed? (drag racing)
    4. How could you design the car for increased distance? (“fuel” economy)
    5. How could you design the car for increased strength? (demolition derby)
  2. Allow students to design their own balloon-powered car using any materials available (recyclable options plus bamboo skewers, etc.). Encourage students to choose varied materials for their bases in order to have variety. You want students to strive for creating the fastest car but you can also have a variety of “rewards” for different features and abilities.


  • Create race tracks and compare:
    • speed,
    • performance, and
    • durability.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

MAKE Simple Machines with Upcycled Materials

Simple machines are an important science concept for students to explore because they can be observed in mechanisms all around us and can seem quite magical as they are used to make our routine tasks so much easier. Whether individually exploring the basic simple machines (wheel and axle, wedge, screw, lever, pulley, inclined plane, linkages, etc.) to understand their practical uses or combining them to create an outlandish Rube Goldberg machine, simple machines are super fun to experiment with.

We like to begin by discussing simple machines and doing some hands-on explorations of existing examples (i.e. window blinds, door stoppers and ramps, door knob, etc). You can add challenge by doing a scavenger hunt type inquiry activity where you give students 5-10 minutes to locate and identify as many simple machines as they can in the room. Having them create quick drawings of the mechanisms using arrows to illustrate force and movement also helps them to understand and communicate the basic science principles that allow the simple machine to function.

Once a working knowledge of simple machines is established you can move on to the magic of building mechanisms. We like to make ours out of recyclable materials, such as cardboard. It’s a great way to show students how they can transform and “upcycle” materials that were going to be thrown away. We collect useful recyclable materials all year for these types of projects and you’d be surprised how quickly you can amass an invaluable collection of unique objects that are just waiting for a new “life”.

Gather Materials:

Cardboard is our number one favorite material so we save almost all of our shipping boxes and pantry boxes (cereal boxes, cracker boxes, tissue boxes, etc.). We also like collecting empty toilet paper tubes, empty paper towel tubes, plastic soda bottles, plastic caps, plastic apple sauce and yogurt cups, plastic berry containers, egg cartons, and coffee canisters. It is super important that all of the plastic materials are rinsed and air dried otherwise they grow mold or attract ants (and that really isn’t the goal of this science experiment). 🙂

We also purchase inexpensive new items like popsicle sticks, toothpicks, straws (plain, bendable, smoothie, etc.), and bamboo skewers (cost about $1 per package). Though these items are technically new, they are important tools for adding increased functionality to our upcycled materials because they easily become axles and structural supports.

Try some of our Simple Machine activities:

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

Cardboard Automata Simple Machines

Simple machines are super awesome and easy to make with everyday materials. Read our previous post about ways to introduce the idea of simple machines and how you can “upcycle” everyday materials you already have access to. One of our favorite simple machines to make is the automata sculpture, which uses cams and cranks to move a sculptural element. This activity allows the students to experience the components of the simple machine while also personalizing their creation to tell their own story. Having a few examples of different automata components is helpful, but there are also great videos that show the inner workings of these unique sculptures (consider watching this video montage of an automata museum display or this CBS special on automata with connections to the popular book and movie, Hugo).

Gather Materials:

  • Cardboard boxes and scraps
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Hot glue
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Markers
  • Small found objects for added weight if needed

Make It:

The Tinkering Studio has a great set of instructions for facilitating cardboard automata with children, including best practices considerations and ways of tying the sculpture to storytelling. We recommend letting the students experiment by building a generic automata with a simple cam follower and crank mechanism that will allow them to switch out different cams (circles, ovals, etc.). This allows them to really get hands-on experience with the different movement possibilities, which can further spark their design and let them experiment with how they can animate a scene or character to tell a story. These creations can be a great writing prompt to spark their storytelling imaginations or they can be a culminating activity to visualize an existing story they have written or previously read.

Design Experiments to Consider:

  • Try adding multiple cams for additional animated characters.
  • Try adding different components to create sounds related to the story.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

  • The Kids’ Book of Simple Machines: Cool Projects and Activities that Make Science Fun by Kelly Doudna
  • Gear Up! Marvelous Machine Projects by Keith Good
  • Looking Closely at Cardboard Automata (1st grade at Mount Vernon Private School)


Modular Origami Paper Puzzles

Paper is such a great medium. You can find it almost anywhere. With a couple of quick folds you can transform it from a fragile flat piece into a strong 3D object. Most people are familiar with origami, the art of folding paper – if not, learn more here with a Scholastic Origami Math lesson. But fewer people are familiar with modular origami, which is a technique that involves creating folded pieces that can be connected together to create larger 3D models. For example, you can fold a piece of paper like this to create one module:

and combine 6 modules to create a cube

or combine 12 modules to create an octahedron

or 30 modules to create an icosahedron.

Grab some thin paper and follow this Math Craft tutorial to create your own.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

Popsicle Stick Mathematical Sculptures

IMAG4270You know what we love to build things with? Everyday objects, like popsicle sticks! Inexpensive, light-weight, and versatile, these are an easy way to construct a variety of things with tape or glue and can easily be decorated with marker, paper, or string. From bridges to buildings, creatures to words, you can really build almost anything with them. We like to get geeky and these materials and build mathematical sculptures. These are not only a great hands-on mathematical learning tool for exploring abstract concepts (physically scaffolding from 2D shapes to 3D forms), but can also become decorative sculptural lighting elements. Though you can make almost any angled shape or form with popsicle sticks, we recommend starting with building a cube first then working on building up to an icosahedron, which has 20 faces (each face is an equilateral triangle), 30 edges, and 12 vertices (5 edges meet at each vertex).

Gather Materials:

  • (at least) 60 popsicle sticks
  • hot glue gun
  • hot glue sticks
  • tape
  • optional decorations, paper, transparency film, markers, buttons, string, etc.
  • battery operated tea light

Make It:

  • Follow this great tutorial to build an icosahedron.

Design Experiment Considerations:

  • Cover each face with different material and experiment with shadow play.
  • Hypothesize how much strong it would take to wrap the entire sculpture.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

AET Makerspace at NAEA 2016

We had an amazing time presenting an interactive makerspace at NAEA! Participants got a chance to discover 8 engaging makerspace activity stations that explored new media, engineering, and computer science. They got to learn to create with arduinos, 3D printers, sewable circuits, free design software, etc. Here is the list of all 8 presenters’ resources. We hope that everyone enjoyed it as much as we did and that it provided inspiration to take back to your own art classrooms! Thanks to the ArtEdTech (AET) group for sponsoring the session!

soft_circuit sewncircuits3  snapcircuits

3D Digitization: Creating Virtual Copies of 3D Objects

Though academic institutions and museums are using costly 3D scanning equipment for their photogrammetry and 3D digitization efforts (see previous post), there are several free 3D scanning apps that allow users to capture photos taken 360 degrees around and object and easily generate virtual copies and 3D models on their own.

Autodesk 123d Catch
Autodesk 123d Catch is a free app for smartphones and tablets that allows you to create 3D scans of virtually any object. With built in guidance, it helps you set up proper lighting and provides advice for how to ensure 360 degree capture of the object. Once the object has been captured, you can upload to the Autodesk 123d cloud to share or download the free mesh-editing software to your computer for further editing and refinement of your 3D virtual model. The resulting file can be embedded into a website for virtual exploration or can be sent directly to a 3D printer.

Classroom integration example of Autodesk 123d Catch. Create a 3D scan capture of a 3D object found during an outdoor inquiry. *Bonus extension: upload the 3D model with an observation to iNaturalist and become a citizen scientist who shares with the global community.

Autodesk Recap
Similarly, Autodesk Recap allows you to capture 3D scans of an object, but has the added ability to leverage video as well. This “point cloud software” allows users to easily plan, measure, and visualize with advanced measurement as they can capture 3D objects and geographic sites, such as architectural layouts. Simply download the free software to a PC or Mac computer and upload digital photos or digital video files.

Classroom integration example of Autodesk Recap. Attach a digital camera (SLR, Smartphone, or GoPro) to a remote controlled helicopter drone to create a scan capture of your school campus and convert the capture into augmented reality.

*Note: this post is part of a roundtable with Dr. Jason Trumble and Claudia Grant presented at the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (SITE) conference. Click here to view the full paper.

3D Digitization: Exploring Virtual 3D Models

Huge paradigm shifts in museum culture are underway as a variety of institutions are engaging in 3D digitization to democratize their collections through the digitization of priceless artifacts and bringing access to the masses (Milroy & Rozefelds, 2015). Scientists in the fields of anthropology and paleontology have been using photogrammetry techniques to capture and record measurements of physical objects, but technological advancements now enable high quality digital scanning with specialized hardware, such as the Makerbot Digitizer (costs approximately $800) and the NextEngine 3D scanner (costs approximately $3,000).

Once the files are converted to virtual 3D models, they are made available on a variety of websites where you can access the files to download (as .stl formatted files) or explore within interactive 3D viewers.  This allows you to not only have access to the digital file (to print a physical copy of on your own) but it allows you to virtually interact with the 3d model on your own computer screen. Imagine being able to explore priceless artifacts that are typically hidden behind glass enclosures at a museum on the other side of the world or explore fossilized remains of ancient creatures found during a research excavation.

Smithsonian X 3D
Smithsonian X 3D is a 3D model database allows anyone with an Internet connection access to Smithsonian’s most renowned artifacts. You can explore a variety of virtual models by rotating the items, isolating different components of them, measuring them with built-in tools and creating specific views that can be shared over social media or embedded on a website or blog post just like a video. Additionally you can explore “tours” of select artifact collections and archaeological sites that are complete with 3D models, expert-written text, and additional resources.

Classroom integration example of Smithsonian X 3D. Take your students on a virtual tour of Cerro Ballena, Chile to learn more about whales ancestors by exploring Balaenopteridae fossils.

Duke University’s Morphosource is an image-sharing resource designed to allow users to upload, search, and browse high quality 3d models. is an online database of 3D models. Using the Creative Commons model, Morphosource encourages citizen scientist and the democratization of access to artifacts. As such, a variety of academic institutions and natural history musems are using Morphosource to facilitate collaboration, consolidate repository holdings, and provide access to the public.

Classroom integration example of Morphosource. Explore patterns in human evolution by comparing and contrasting virtual models of skeletal remains.

The University of Texas at Austin’s Digimorph is a lab that creates and shares 2D and 3D visualizations of the internal and external structure of living and extinct vertebrates, and a growing number of ‘invertebrates.’ Users can search a variety of specimens and explore virtual models and animations that detail the morphology of specimens in unique multimodal ways. With partnerships from a variety of academic institutions and paleontologists, Digimorph provides informative research publications with each specimen to deepen the potential learning.

Classroom integration example of Digimorph. Explore x-ray CT scans of various horned lizards and attempt to hypothesize reconstructions of what their ancestors may have looked like.

NASA 3D Models
Among the variety of data sets related to space exploration, NASA 3D Models contains a variety of 3D digitiazations of spacecraft, topographical maps, and plantary objects. Additionally, they have compiled several visualizations that allow users to explore landforms.

Classroom integration example of NASA 3D Models. Explore the impact that volcanic lava flows has on the near and far side of the moon’s surface.

Milroy, A. A., & Rozefelds, A. C. (2015). Democratizing the collection: Paradigm shifts in and through museum culture. Australasian Journal Of Popular Culture, 4(2/3), 115-130.

*Note: this post is part of a roundtable with Dr. Jason Trumble and Claudia Grant presented at the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (SITE) conference. Click here to view the full paper.