Public Lab Research note

Reverse Engineering (a hands-on STEM activity)

by SuziT9 | April 16, 2018 19:40 16 Apr 19:40 | #16162 | #16162

If you are looking for a fun activity to do with kids, this is it! The Reverse Engineering activity is basically taking stuff apart**! We use standard hand tools to disassemble anything people will donate to us -- broken hair dryers, alarm clocks, VCRs, etc. (see message below for what we won't take).

I have hosted Reverse Engineering in a variety of settings and with kids of many ages, usually elementary/middle school. This activity is always wildly popular, and kids will sit for hours taking things apart. Be prepared to be the bearer of bad news when the activity has to end. The kids are always disappointed when it's over.

Much credit goes to Techbridge Girls for their Reverse Engineering of Hair Dryers"

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  • Hand tools -- mainly screwdrivers: flathead, phillips, torx. Be sure to have miniature ones, such as those for repairing eyeglasses. Also scissors and one or two wire cutters. I purchased quite a number of these at Harbor Freight for about $25. Note that the kids can be pretty hard on cheap tools, especially the mini screwdrivers.
  • Safety goggles (small-size for children) Gumballs on Amazon are nice and meet the ANSI Z87.1+ high impact standard. Rubber lab goggles can work if the strap can tighten, but ordinary glasses-style goggles are too big for kids' faces
  • Ice cube trays or Tupperware containers to hold screws and little pieces
  • Boxes for trash, e-waste and recyclables
  • Gloves (small-size for children are nice)
  • Wet wipes / paper towels
  • Graph paper / pencils for sketching (not used much, unfortunately)
  • Lots of broken electronics for kids to take apart (I always go through more than I think I will!)


* Signs /banners publicizing the activity/project

* Large work surface -- tables, chairs. Can be done outside -- a tarp is nice for indoor or outdoor. Small pieces get lost in the grass.


* Collect donations of broken electronics. Discard any that don't meet safety requirements. (See announcement below)

* It's nice to have one adult volunteer for about every 3-4 kids


  • Appealing to all ages, including parents. Very young kids can do this with parent's help.
  • I really try to encourage kids who seem interested but might be shy about jumping in. Sometimes they just need some encouragement. (See SciGirls Seven for a few research-based tips on engaging girls in STEM)
  • Some kids need guidance on the types of screwdrivers (phillips vs. flathead) and how to unscrew: "lefty-loosey, righty-tighty"
  • Safety first! Kids may try to take things apart by prying or bashing. This is not allowed. If something can't be unscrewed, it needs to be tossed out. Some pieces can contain sharp edges inside once disassembled. Circuit boards are sometimes pulled out and crack, leaving sharp edges.
  • If kids need help loosening a screw, jump in there but then back away so they can do it themselves.
  • Kids may ask to take home the electronics they took apart. I make sure the parents are OK with it first.

Possible extensions

* Encourage kids to make a sketch as they take something apart and then put it back together!

_Sample announcement for collecting materials. _

I send this on campus and to a local list-serv. People are usually more than happy to dump their broken stuff on me for a good cause! I have to be cautious not to become the dumping ground -- sometimes people just throw a bunch of junk in to get rid of it.

Good morning! I am looking for small broken electronics that kids can take apart with standard hand tools.

Good examples are clock radio, camera, small kitchen appliances, computer hard drive, router, small printer, hair dryer, electronic toys, etc.

Nothing with chemicals inside or really sharp edges. Check to see that they can be taken apart with standard or phillips screwdrivers (ideally not the Torx star-shaped ones). Ideally no bigger than a shoebox. No dorm frigs or microwaves - sorry!

If you're at MSU, please drop at 128 Barnard Hall (the building near the student union) or I can give you my address near 4th and Story.

I will need them before Thursday, March 1.

--Documented by Suzi Taylor, Montana State University, and member of NASA AREN team (Aerokats and Rovers Education Network), (406) 994-7957

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Wow this is superfun!!! Thank you for sharing this! I am tagging this as an activity for others to try as well :)

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Thanks! I wish I could do this activity every day - it is so fun and empowering for the kids, especially those who have never been taught (or allowed) to use tools.

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Reminds me of Take-Apart at @partsandcrafts! Fantastic!!!

@kgradow1 @wmacfarl

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