Using STEM as Your Time Machine for History

October 8, 2015 by

Guest Post by Cheryl and Wendy from Get Caught Engineering

Wouldn’t history class be more fascinating if we could use a time machine to explore events of the past? Just as the fictional Ms. Frizzle and her school bus provides her students with amazing adventures to understand scientific concepts, with our own time machine we could provide inspiring visions for cultural accomplishments. Although, sadly, we can’t have this fantasy tool to enliven our history lessons, we actually can provide insight to a past society’s achievements by integrating STEM with our social studies lessons. History is full of amazing engineers, so why not tap into that source and enrich your history lessons by allowing your students to walk in the footsteps of the giants of engineering? Once a student has tried to create their own navigation tool, designed a pulley system to hoist a sail for a ship, attempted to build an arch or a dome, or had to struggle with engineering a container for a trip across the Plains, they begin to develop an understanding for the problems of earlier civilizations.


As educators, we understand the time crunch teachers experience every day and are big believers in integrating STEM lessons into other subjects. Hands on activities that use simple materials and that emphasize perseverance, problem solving, and collaborative skills provide a platform for further discussion of all the elements of history and social studies.

Not sure where to begin? It’s just a matter of looking at history through a different lens.

  1. Recreate an invention or technology that was created long ago. Begin with a discussion of why the technology was needed. What were their lives like before the new invention? How was it improved? What science and math principals did they already need to know? Our students will not only learn which science and math principals are behind the particular invention, but will also gain an appreciation for the struggles and hardships the people of a particular time period faced.

Ancient Egypt – Engineer a pyramid out of sugar cubes

Ancient Greece – Engineer columns out of paper and test their strength. The activity uses simple materials and is easy to integrate.

Ancient Rome- Engineer a dome from gumdrops and toothpicks or an arch out of crackers and frosting

This lesson is available for FREE at the Get Caught Engineering’s Teachers Pay Teachers store:  Ancient Greece – Engineer columns out of paper and test their strength.

  1. Solve some of the everyday problems faced by a culture. Although history is filled with people that are recognized as the engineers and scientists of their times, ordinary people solved their technological problems every day. For any time period have the students identify some of the technological needs: How did they get water? How did they keep food from spoiling? What kind of shelter did they live in? How did they transport food or goods across land or water? What kinds of tools did they need to farm? How did they cook? Don’t be afraid to try to have the students use some of the same materials such as twigs and leaves to build prototypes.

Water – Engineer a simple water filter system using cups, sand, and gravel

Shelter- Engineer a shelter that will withstand extreme weather (represented by a hair drier)

Food Storage – Engineer a container that will keep an ice cube frozen for the longest time

  1. Improve or modify an invention previously made. Conestoga wagons journeyed across America’s prairies – how would the student improve the design? Ancient civilizations had irrigation systems -how would they design them if they had lived in that time? Although ultimately each invention was either improved upon or eliminated when it was replaced by something else, it is valuable for students to consider how they would have created something. This allows the students to further consider what life was like in a by-gone time.

Covered wagons and storage- Design a trunk for a covered wagon using cardboard and tape.

Explorers and Navigation – Engineer a compass, a pulley system for a sail or a ship out of foil that can hold weight

  1. Take a particular theme across time. For example, everyone throughout history has had a need to procure water for themselves, livestock and crops. The students could immerse themselves in looking at how individual groups met that need throughout history. One way to accomplish this is to assign different time periods or civilizations to different groups of students. Their challenge could be to either recreate the technology used or improve upon it.

Water – Engineer an aqueduct or an irrigation system

Roads – Engineer wheels that can handle rough roads

Structures- Engineer buildings out of various materials that can support weights

  1. Investigate individual inventors. History is full of amazing people who laid the foundations for inventions of a more modern day. Leonardo di Vinci and Benjamin Franklin are just two who spring to mind. But encourage student to explore other less familiar names such as Grace Hopper or J. Robert Oppenheimer. How did their inventions and ideas change history?

We encourage you to hop on the virtual time machine and add STEM to your history lessons. We have lots more ideas and resources on our Facebook and Pinterest pages to help you develop lessons that will captivate your students and make history come alive.

Using Stem as Your Time Machine for History: Guest post by Get Caught Engineering

Wendy and Cheryl together have over 50 years of classroom experience. They are eager to help spread the word on children’s engineering. They have trained teachers, administrators, and families throughout the United States and have a website and blog, Get Caught Engineering. Contact them at

Get Caught Engineering

Get Caught Engineering

This article was written by Cheryl and Wendy from Get Caught Engineering