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Culturally Inspired Holiday Science Activities

Middle School

Have you considered adding variety to your classroom holiday observances, activities, and ideas? Spice up your holiday-related lessons with diverse traditions that are inclusive and fun, and inspire science connections!

The world’s holidays and celebrations are an opportunity for students to explore new things like spinning a dreidel, the principles of Kwanzaa, China’s winter festival, and how North American indigenous Hopis welcome winter; the festivities are endless! Even if you’re unfamiliar with some of these traditions, it’s easy to find something new to engage your class; just believe in your ’Elf!

As our gift to you, we’ve put together this list of culturally inclusive traditions and easy science activities to help explore them.


December 26-January 1 is Kwanza (or Kwanzaa), a holiday established in 1996 by Maulana Karenga. He established the celebration for pan-Africans and African Americans to “discover and bring forth the best of our culture, both ancient and current and use it as a foundation to bring into being models of human excellence and possibilities to enrich and expand our lives.” Like Cinco de Mayo, everyone is welcome to participate in the Kwanzaa celebration. Kwanza comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.” Each day of the week-long holiday is dedicated to the Nguzo Saba, also known as the seven principles, which are:

  1. Umoja (Unity) To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race
  2. Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)
  3. Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)
  4. Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)
  5. Nia (Purpose)
  6. Kuumba (Creativity)
  7. Imani (Faith)

Families also use corn stalks as part of the Kwanza table setting. The corn represents the children of a family (one ear of corn for each child). Corn represents fertility and symbolizes that through the children, the family’s hopes are brought to life.

Activity: Science Connections

I'm Just Here for the Popcorn: A Heat Transfer Activity

It’s a quick activity for middle- and high schoolers that uses popcorn to uncover three different ways heat can be transferred – conduction, convection, and radiation. They’ll learn about thermal energy, you’ll get a great-smelling classroom, and everyone gets to eat the results.

Las Posadas

December 16-24 is Las Posadas, a nine-day celebration in Mexico commemorating Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. Christmas Posadas are most popular in Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of the southwest United States. Everyone dresses up as Mary and Joseph in small processions that are held during the nine days before Christmas Eve. The Posadas are reenactments of Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging. The tradition includes a party at a different neighborhood home each night. “The Pilgrims” sing and ask for shelter, with the hosts singing back and offering punch, buñuelos (fried rosette cookies), tamales, and other holiday foods. The party ends when guests break open a Christmas-star-shaped piñata.

Activity: Piñata, An Introduction to Median, Mode, and Range

If you’re an NSTA member, you can download this activity for free.  

Mastering the concepts of median, mode, mean, and range is crucial to science experiments that involve numerous trials. The Piñata Game is a hands-on, multicultural, problem-solving activity.

Students collect materials gathered from breaking open a piñata to learn how to find the median, mode, and range for data collection. After collecting various materials from the broken piñata, students sort them into groups and select the median, mode, and range of what they have collected.

Extend the lesson: By making the pinata in class, students can observe the bonds that create the gluey substance that holds it together. The starchy glue works by forming a bond between the flour starch and the newspaper starch. The water is a carrier for the starch to bond, so the layers must dry (the water evaporates) before the strong bond is formed and the piñata takes shape. The balloon shapes the wet papers into the piñata’s final form, and the starch glue doesn’t stick to the balloon since it does not contain starch.


In 2022, Chanukkah (Hanukkah) is celebrated December 18-26; the dates change yearly. Also known as the “Festival of Lights,” it’s an eight-day Jewish holiday recognizing the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It’s observed by lighting candles on a Menorah—one for each day of the festival. According to the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah starts on the 25th day of Kislev, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar.

Activity: Spinning Dreidels and other Tops courtesy of Share It! Science.

During Hanukkah, children traditionally play with the dreidel, a four-sided top inscribed with Hebrew letters that serve as an acronym for "A Great Miracle Happened Here."

Science and physics are everywhere, including games that involve a spinning top! Give students the engineering challenge of manipulating the dimensions of a top until they find what makes it spin the longest. Students may change the length of the "stem" or axle, how much the stem is above or below the disc, and how wide the disc is.

Winter Solstice Traditions: Dongzhi and Soyal Festivals

This thousands-of-years-old festival on December 21, 22, or 23 is celebrated in China with family gatherings and a big meal, including rice balls, called tang yuan. Thought to mark the end of the harvest season, the holiday also has roots in the Chinese concept of yin and yang: After the solstice, all that winter darkness will be offset by plenty of sunshine!

 The indigenous Hopi and Zuni people of present-day northern Arizona and New Mexico, respectively, celebrate the winter solstice as part of their religious tradition honoring kachina (or katsina), which are ancestral spirits representing the natural world. During the Soyal solstice ceremony, led by a tribal chief, the sun is welcomed back to its summer path with ritual dances. Gift-giving to children, prayers for the coming year, singing, and storytelling are also part of the festivities. Prayer sticks and kachina dolls are often made in preparation for the celebration.

Activity:  Season Cycler Lab Activity

Following a step-by-step procedure, students mark, label, and rotate the Earth to illustrate and answer questions on solar intensity, rotation, revolution, and angles of radiation. Students also discuss the effects caused by the Earth’s tilting.

The team at Ward's Science hopes you and your students have an enjoyable, safe, and science-filled holiday with your families. Happy Holidays! 

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