Engineering An Ice Lantern – Winter STEM activity

Engineering A Christmas Ice Lantern – Simple and beautiful STEM activity for the holidays. Excellent for preschool and up.

It’s winter and for many of us, especially your friendly neighborhood Canadian, that means icy cold weather. We can’t let the weather deter us. In fact we can use the weather to our advantage and create beautiful things. Like a Christmas Ice Lantern. A STEM activity for the holidays.

Holiday Ice Lanterns Project

Engineering A Christmas Ice Lantern - Holiday STEM activity

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A few months ago we did an Ice STEM challenge. It was fun, but also the middle of summer, so the timing was a bit… weird.

When it is hot and sunny out the only place I want ice is in my drinks.

Now that winter is here we are much more motivated to tackle some icy cold STEM. It feels much more fitting. So I took one of the ideas from our original ice STEM challenge and gave it a beautiful Christmas twist.

This activity is great fun for preschoolers and up.

Engineering a Christmas Ice Lantern


Engineering A Christmas Ice Lantern - Holiday STEM activity

Large plastic cup (like a Solo cup)
Small plastic cup
Decorative pieces (pompoms, beads, pipe cleaners, tinsel, pine needle, pine cones, dried berries, etc.)
Food coloring
A freezer or it needs to be below zero outside
Battery operated candle


The first step is to decide on your decorations. This is the engineering challenge! We found it was best to take pipe cleaners and twist them so they spiraled up the outside of the large cup. These acted as your garland and as a place to put all your other baubles so they stayed in place.

Now carefully place pompoms and beads so they balance on the garland. This can be challenging and they will move once you add water, so don’t stress too much.

Pro Tip! If you wish to be more environmentally conscious, natural materials like pine needles, small pine cones, dried berries and even small rocks or crystals all worked beautifully as well. The key is that they need to be small.

Once you are happy with your decorations slide the small cup inside the large cup. Tape it into place so the top of the cups are flush with each other. Four pieces of tape works well to keep it secure.

Add a few drops of food coloring to the water.

Carefully start to add water between the two cups so the water only goes into the larger cup. You will need to add some weight to the smaller cup to keep it in place and stop it popping up. We added a couple of stones to ours to keep it in place.

Fill until the water is only a couple of centimetres from the top. This is important. Why? SCIENCE! Water expands as it freezes. More on that in a second!

Finally, place the lanterns in the freezer (or outdoors) for 5 hours or until completely frozen.

Take A Moment For Science

Once it is frozen take a moment to look at your creation. What do you notice?

Engineering A Christmas Ice Lantern - Holiday STEM activity

You should notice that despite the tape and the weights the smaller cup is higher and the ice is to the top of the large cup. This is due to water expanding as it freezes. This is a fantastic opportunity to see this in practice and discuss what happens when water changes states.

Revealing the Lanterns

Now carefully remove the inside plastic cup, then the outer plastic up. You may need to cut the cups to get them off. Just carefully snip the edge with some scissors and you should be able to peel them off.

Engineering A Christmas Ice Lantern - Holiday STEM activity

For safety you can use battery operated candles, plus they won’t melt your lantern like a tea light.

Turn on your candle, set it outside in the wintery cold and enjoy the beauty of your creation!

Imagine a line of these leading up your sidewalk to your door on Christmas day. A stunning welcome for your guests!

Looking for a twist? Why not jumbo size it and make them using ice cream pails?

Engineering A Christmas Ice Lantern - Holiday STEM activity