Getting families involved

S&C February 2012

I get a little concerned about family science nights that are not much more than whiz-bang, dazzling “experiments” done by the teachers with the parents and students watching as an audience and little connection to what is happening in the classroom. After such an event, I wonder what the take-away idea is for parents who might not have a strong background in science?

Fortunately, this issue has some great ideas for teachers who want to get parents (and guardians, grandparents, older siblings, relatives, family friends, and caregivers–any important adults in a child’s life) actively involved in enjoyable explorations in science–at school events, at home, or in the community.

There are some great suggestions for a Weekend Science Project. The author created backpacks that students could check out to use at home on weekends. The backpacks included materials that students and their families could use to explore aquatic environments (a list of contents is included). The students had already used the materials in a class study, and they were encouraged to share what they learned with their families. (I do volunteer work at a nature center. I’m going to suggest something similar–Thanks!)  [SciLinks: Water Quality]

Science Sacks describes a similar program, in which teachers and parent volunteers created take-home kits on a variety of topics related to the curriculum. The parents were introduced to the sacks on Back to School Night and were informed of safety issues. Students record their activities in their class journal. It’s Tradition describes how a family science night has evolved into an event in many schools and takes advantage of community resources. Students and families have a variety of events and activities to choose from.

I wonder how these would work in a school that does not have a lot of resources or where the parents are not as able to volunteer or attend evening sessions, whose home language is not English, or who are struggling with economic or medical issues? Several articles have suggestions.

I know of a school where take-home kits in science (as well as reading, the arts, math, and social studies) are created and assembled by high school students. Send-Home Science has suggestions for starting small and offers suggestions for activities that do not require a lot of materials. There is also a good suggestion for including the directions in other languages.

Lab with Dad describes an evening event for students and their dads (or other adults). They paired up to complete activities derived from the Science Olympiad or activities in the field of forensics. [SciLinks: Forensic Science] If you teach older students, Never Too Cool for School has ideas for engaging them and their parents in afterschool or evening explorations. The author shares many ideas for topics and activities appropriate for these students.

What do launching rockets, building compressed-air cars, kite design and testing, solar energy, and electric motors have in common? They were all activities in the STEM Day in the Park. Perhaps this article could be shared with local parks and recreation personnel, who are often looking for family-day events? [SciLinks: Rockets]

Reinventing the Bridge uses teams of students and guests apply their engineering skills to fine-tune the design of a bridge. Usually the guest was a parent, but the authors note that older students, other teachers, or community members could also be involved. [Scilinks: The Science of Bridges]

I was in New Orleans for an NSTA conference, and one evening I noticed one of the buskers in Jackson Square had set up a telescope. For 25 cents, he would offer a close-up glimpse of the moon or a look at the moons of Jupiter or the rings of Saturn. People were lined up down the block! So an astronomy night (as described in Aligning the Stars] might get families lined up for your event. The authors provide suggestions for planning and hosting an event. [SciLinks: Stars]  Does the Moon Still Matter? encourages students to observe the phases of the moon (and I’ll never see Oreo cookies without thinking of the photograph with this article!). This could be a nice activity to model at a Science Night, too. [SciLinks: Phases of the Moon] Astronomy is a popular topic this year–Take a look at Earth, Moon, Sun (S&C, January 2012) and Astronomy (Science Scope, February 2012)

Bringing Antarctica Home  describes a virtual experience for students and their families, with guidelines for setting up similar ones. What about involving student and families in the many citizen science activities? [SciLinks: Polar Climates] The authors these afterschool events are a good supplement to the classroom (and sometimes there just isn’t enough time during the day). Other citizen science projects may be appropriate for students and their families, such as NASA’s Students’ Cloud Observations On-Line (S’COOL), Project BudBurst,  Journey North,,  MonarchWatch, Great Backyard Bird Count, and Project Feederwatch.

For more ideas on planning a family night, see NSTA Reports Making a Night of Science. And I wonder, has anyone used probes such as Seeing the Light as a take-home activity for children and parents/caregivers to explore?

As always, there are articles with background information on key topics: How does the human eye work? [SciLinks: Eye] and What’s the Matter [SciLinks: Matter]

And check out more Connections for this issue (February 2012). Even if the article does not quite fit with your lesson agenda, there are ideas for handouts, background information sheets, data sheets, rubrics, and other resources.


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One Comment

  1. Peter Jeff
    Posted February 21, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    You’re right, Mary. There has to be more captivating way to engage children in science. That’s why I have launched a nationwide campaign to promote science education 400 words at a time. And I need your help.

    The concept is to provide teachers a “set up piece” –a script much like television news producers create to better prepare, engage and stimulate the audience to pay attention to and — understand the key relevance in– the upcoming interview with a subject expert.

    Now here’s the key: This 400 word set up piece has to be written with enough entertainment flair and metaphorical clarity to stimulate the imagination of a 10 year old. It’s a story that just happens to be about science not a science story. The focus is on the story and every story has a hero, a villain and a plot. that is much different than setting up a science experiment.

    See an example on my blog at Search for “scientist.”

    My hope is to serve as a catalyst to recruit and collect these 400 word set up pieces on any aspect of science education. With the author’s permission, I would publish the donated scripts on to get initial feedback and stimulate more participation in writing the set up pieces. Then plan to donate all the set up pieces to the NSTA for your distribution as you see fit. I am looking for no compensation, other than knowing I did my part to stimulate science education in America.

    Mary, happy to discuss this concept with you. I can be reached at 616.291.8140 in Michigan. I am a retired educator, primarly in the corporate training ranks and served as a college adjunct instructor for 10 years. Now that I am retired, I have the time to pursue my passion: promoting science education.

    Peter Jeff
    Promoting Science Education 400 Words at Time

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