Eight Great Tips for Effective Brainstorming

by Kim Moldofsly, The Maker Mom

The journey toward earning the title of America’s Top Young Scientist begins with a compelling question. Answering that question requires careful observation, creative thinking, solid planning skills, self-discipline and hard work. But simply defining that question is the first step of the journey. 

Here are eight great brainstorming tips to help get started.

Begin with an Idea…Or 50

In most cases, quality is job one. But when it comes to brainstorming quantity is key. If the goal is to find one great idea, then come up with 50. Admittedly, most of them will be less than great, but when quantity is the goal, it encourages people to stretch their minds and maybe even get a bit silly. It forces brainstormers out of the metaphorical box.

Jump Start with Jumping Jacks

Okay, jumping jacks might not work well in your lab or classroom, but a little movement can go a long way in energizing the brain. Some believe that cross-body exercises prime the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerves that connects the right and left hemispheres of our brains. Tapping your right hand to your left knee and vice versa might stimulate and strengthen the connections inside your head that allows you to think with your “whole brain.” At the very least, movement helps get the jitters out for some students.

If whole body movement isn’t right for your class, some tactile manipulatives might help. Koosh Balls, stress balls and Thinking Putty are some of my favorites.

What, Where, Why?

Now that their bodies are warmed up and their brains are primed, it’s time to start asking questions. Questions should be open-ended so that they can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. Open-ended questions invite further thought and award-winning investigation:
• How might…?
• Why does…?
• What would…?

Context Matters

Encourage your students to think of problems in their school, home, or community or to add context to the generic questions.
• How might I keep my dog cool when we go for long walks in the summer?
• Why does the locker room smell so bad?
• What would make it easier to get up for school in the morning?

Yes, And…

The more questions your students generate, the better their chances of finding an exciting topic for deeper exploration. Borrowing an idea from the world of improv comedy, encourage students to build on each other’s ideas by responding with the words, “Yes, and...” The flip side of this is forbidding them to criticize their classmates (or themselves) during the brainstorming session. It’s hard to Think Big in a group of critics.


People often talk about “thinking outside the box.” Encourage your students to think outside of themselves. What questions might they ask if they were spiders instead of people? What observations might they make if they were 22 years old or even 82 instead of 12? What would their most pressing concerns be if they were a housefly, a gym shoe, or the President of the United States?

Picture This

There’s a famous anecdote that the young Albert Einstein once envisioned himself riding on a wave of light. Of course, it’s a rather silly image, but later in life understanding the wave nature of light became one of his areas of serious research (not so much the part about actually saddling up a wave of light, though). Challenge students to put words aside and brainstorm in visuals.

10 Questions

For more tips on getting started with the Young Scientist Challenge, see this list of 10 Questions.

Scientist Rachel Carson noted the importance of maintaining a sense of wonder about the world. By thinking deeply and creatively about the world around them, your students will not only start down the path to becoming America’s Top Young Scientist, but one of lifelong learning.