Five Essential Hands-on Tools for STEM Classroom Activities

If you’re an elementary educator who wants to pilot innovative hands-on STEM activities for kids, you’re limited to a few constraints: prep time, using low- or no-cost materials, and managing groups of adventuresome learners. Students usually have four essential tools they can bring to just about any project: things to cut paper with, things to stick paper together with, and things to draw on paper with, and the confidence to try something new. What happens when you want to launch a project like Art Machines that involves punching holes in craft sticks and attaching cut cardboard components? How would your learners cut and attach pieces of cardboard so they stay, but can be repositioned? Kid scissors don’t always cut it. No amount of classroom glue sticks will hold it. Pencils can’t easily poke a hole in craft sticks. Learner confidence begins to droop. The wrong tools make 'easy stem activities' not so easy in practice!

It’s time to expand your toolbox!

Real tools – small hand-operated ones that cut, make holes, connect and adhere sturdy materials – are essential in every innovative classroom. Learners grow when they have access to the hands-on tools that teachers use. Learners can be expected to use them effectively if they’re made available in a thoughtful, trusting way. Even simple tools activate engineering mindsets and support essential social and emotional skills of self-management and responsible decision-making. When you put tested tools in small hands, big ideas and beautiful solutions flourish.

We’ve created a growing list of easy-to-acquire, safe, effective, low-cost tools and materials that have been tested in thousands of elementary classes and FutureMakers Teacher Gym sessions over the past ten years.

The top five(ish) are described in this article, and you can find the full set in our list:

Each description includes:

  • its common name (not the brand)
  • price range
  • the best ratio of tools to students
  • best use of the tool
  • perfect for grade level __ & up
  • what to watch out for
  • Pro use tips
  • durability and
  • how often it needs to be replaced.

We also list a ‘pairs well with” option–also tested (and also awesome!) – great for further experimentation!

This list does not include links to purchase tools – you’re free to search using your best sources.


Low Force 1-Hole Punch

$5 - $8

Students to tools: 3:1

Use with: heavy cardboard, craft sticks, plastics, thin wood, and thin metals.

Perfect for: Grades 1 & up

Watch out for: Stuck punches - give the tool a twist and the stuck material will usually pop the spring-loaded punch free.

Pro tip: Make a mark on the tool with a paint pen or a raised bump of foam tape that corresponds with where the punch is located – helps makers visualize where the hole will happen!

Durability: High

Replace: every two years

Pairs well with: ID Card Slot Punch

Project Suggestion: Art Machines


Utility / EMT / Paramedic Shears

Various sizes, sold in sets $2 - $5 each

Students to tools: 3:1

Use with: extra heavy cardboard, craft sticks, plastics, thin wood, thin metals

Perfect for: K & up

Watch out for: Not much! They’re safety shears!

Pro tip: These are often sold in sets. The inexpensive ones are small and flimsy. Spend extra for larger, stronger ones. The blade has a spoonbill to make it easy to slip under stacked materials.

Durability: Medium

Replace: Annually

Pairs well with: Safety Box Cutter

Project Suggestion: Monster Mouths


Ceramic Safety Cutter 

Approx $3 - $5

Students to tools: 3:1

Best use: Cuts sheet goods – paper, thin card stock, thin plastic. This doesn’t cut stacks of materials well, or fabric. 

Perfect for: PK & up.  

Watch out for: Not much - these get lost more than break. 

Pro tip: Excellent for cutting sign vinyl, tapes, or materials that need to be kiss-cut and peeled, leaving a backing untouched. 

Durability: High

Replace: When lost

Pairs well with: Hobby Knife with Taped Blade

Project Suggestion: Hand cut vinyl sticker


Plier Stapler

Various brands, $15 - $25

Students to tools: 6:1

Use with: heavy cardboard, Coroplast, or anything that needs stapling!

Perfect for: K & up. 

Watch out for: Staple jams - don’t lose the spring-loaded staple retainer!

Pro tip: These are great for joining many layers of cardboard on an edge, but not reaching deeper than a standard stapler. Uses standard desk staples. 

Durability: High

Replace: Probably never - just add staples!

Pairs well with: Brass Paper Fasteners

Project Suggestion:  Art Machines


Low Temp Hot Glue Gun & Mini Hot Glue Sticks

Various brands, $2 - $7 (tool), $30+ (200 sticks)

Students to tools: 3:1

Use with: any materials that need permanent fastening  

Perfect for: 3rd & up.  

Watch out for: high-temperature glue guns are DANGEROUS, do not use high-temperature tools.

Pro tip: This is a station tool - easy to set up, work on a paper or cardboard-covered surface. Learners take turns! Give them access to (a limited number of) glue sticks at each station. Purchase glue in bulk packs.

Durability: Low

Replace: When totally gunked up. Better to retire than risk jams. 

Pairs well with: Household Iron & Fusible Interfacing

With tested tools, your learners can supercharge their STEM projects! They can puncture thin wood with low force hole punches, make quick work of the thickest cardboard (or corrugated plastic!) with EMT shears and safety cutters, and level up their adhesive game with low temp glue guns. Get ready for some serious play!

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STEM projects for elementary students are sometimes difficult to implement without access to tools – especially for larger groups with mixed experience levels. If you’re searching for solutions with classes of ten or more, we’ve created FutureMakers Sparks for projects just like what was shared above – minimal or no tools required! Our Sparks are designed to have everything your learners need to make and take home a working project. Each includes free access to a coach guide slide deck that will make you a STEM project superstar!

Check out FutureMakers Sparks here.

Written by
Matt Barinholtz
Matt Barinholtz is dedicated to transforming educational experiences through playful hands-on learning.