Science Family Fun Night
One night a month Vivian Smith opens her classroom to families where they work together to solve logic problems and conduct experiments. Learn how this science teacher increases family involvement in her students' education and find ideas for science experiments, webquests, projects, and construction contests.
Vivian Smith doesn’t just teach science to kids, she teaches parents too. One night a month Smith opens her classroom to families where they work together to solve logic problems and conduct experiments. She calls it “Science Family Fun Night.” Although the outreach program began only this school year, Smith already has about fifteen families who attend each month. “My goal is to get the parents and the students involved in science and, in turn, create a love for learning,” she says. “I think parents are a vital part of any child’s education.”
Smith teaches seventh grade science to 160 students with a wide range of ability levels and from a variety of backgrounds at E.B. Aycock Middle School in Greenville. One-third of the school’s students are economically disadvantaged as defined by state guidelines. Only about half of those students passed both their reading and math end-of-grade tests in the 2004–2005 school year. The activities at her evening events give students a fun way to practice reading and math skills as well as science skills. Smith points out that science will soon be a subject tested on the EOG tests.
Smith recently received a grant from the Pitt Foundation to fund Family Fun Nights at a community center in a housing project where some of her students live. Some families without cars have difficulty getting to the school at night and this new location will allow them to join the fun. Smith hopes that family involvement will have a positive impact on student achievement and, perhaps, help to narrow the achievement gap between students from lower and higher income homes.
Smith has been teaching for seventeen years. Science Family Fun Night is based on a school-wide program she participated in while teaching in Charlotte, NC that was based on the EQUALS program. EQUALS was developed at the University of California at Berkeley, which provides workshops and curriculum materials in mathematics and equity. Smith uses some activities from the EQUALS books, Family Math and Family Science but also draws from other resources or creates her own activities.
The evening events begin at 6:00. Refreshments are served and the participants begin working on activities at different stations around the room. Smith explains that the stations consist of “simple activities they can do as a family that don’t require many materials or a lot of science background knowledge.” Families rotate around the stations for about half an hour.
Following the station activities, Smith switches to a whole group activity, which lasts for approximately another hour. The whole group activity can take a variety of forms, such as projects, construction contests, building activities, and information sessions. For her next Science Family Fun Night, Smith is planning an information session covering science fair projects. Smith also has an abundance of ideas for future whole group activities.
“An hour and half or two hours goes by really quickly,” she says. “You would think, ‘Oh no, that’s after school for two hours, it’s going to last forever.’ But it doesn’t, it goes really quickly!”
Smith has identified objectives for both students and parents that she hopes result from involvement in the Science Family Fun Night program.
Objectives for students
- Increase content knowledge of science topics
- Increase participation in science class
- Enhance the enjoyment of science and solving problems
- Improve EOG test scores
- Enhance technology skills
- Appreciation of life long learning
- Encourage the use of logical problem solving skills in daily life
- Increase conversations with parents about science
- Enhance personal relationships between child and parent
Objectives for parents
- Increased involvement in the school
- Increased involvement in the science classroom
- Create a better understanding of the science curriculum and science expectations
- Create a better understanding of the scientific method
- Encourage the use of logical problem solving skills in daily life
- Enhance technology skills
- Enhance personal relationships between parent and child
- Increase conversations with the student about science
- Appreciation of lifelong learning
After fifteen minutes of refreshments, parents and their kids get stated on the station activities. Once the families have worked through the stations, she reviews the principles each activity illustrated. “I try to get to every family to make sure they’re understanding the science concepts,” she explains. Smith usually has five new stations for every Science Family Fun Night.
Hole in One (problem solving and math)
“You have an index card and you have to cut it so it fits around your body,” Smith explains. This requires cutting the index card in a spiral so it transforms into a long, continuous piece of cardstock. “They’ll say, ‘You can’t do that!’ I give them scissors and index cards, and they try all different kinds of things. They try to beat their parents at getting it done.” Smith puts six to ten sets of scissors and index cards out. “Sometimes the parents will sit back and watch their children, and then they’ll say, ‘Well, why don’t you try this?’ Sometimes the parents are more eager than the children and are completely focused on what they’re trying to do. It’s really interesting to watch the interactions.”
Perfect People and Femur vs. Height (measurement and graphing)
In Perfect People, parents and children measure each other’s arm spans and height, then graph them with arm span on one axis and height on the other. This helps students learn how to construct and read graphs. Smith has also used it to familiarize them with Microsoft Excel. “They graphed their arm span versus their height to see whether or not they were a perfect square, tall rectangle, or short rectangle,” she says. “They enjoy doing that, because they get to lie on the floor or they get to measure their parents. Then they take those measurements and key them into the computer. At the end, they graph everyone’s measurements.”
In Femur vs. Height, “you measure your femur and your height, and you see that there is a positive increasing relationship between the two.” Taller people generally have longer legs, although the relationship is not perfectly linear. Smith explains to her rapt pupils how this concept is put into practice by criminologists who use body part measurements to determine the heights of the victims whose remains are incomplete. “They like that part,” Smith says with a chuckle.
Temperature probes (replicating the experiment)
The PTA recently bought Smith’s class a set of temperature probes and a parent asked to see how they are used in class. “I want the parents to see them in action, because parents don’t always get a chance to come in the classroom,” Smith says.
To illustrate how the probes are used, she set up a station where families collect and graph data. In one activity, the first participant uses the probe to measure a series of temperature changes and inputs the results into a graph. The second participant will try to recreate that graph without knowing what caused the changes. For example, the first person might have grasped the temperature probe (warming it up), then let go of it (cooling it to room temperature), and finally wrapped it in a cold, wet paper towel (cooling it down even more). The second person would have to figure out how those temperature changes had been achieved using the materials at hand, then recreate the circumstances to graph a matching line.
Between Two Cans (prediction)
Two cans of the same size and weight are balanced on straws, so that if you blow on them the straws will roll and the cans will move. Participants are asked to predict how the cans will move if they blow air in between the two cans. “The kids are, nine times out of ten, going to say that the cans are going to go away from each other. In actuality they go towards each other, because air moves from an area of high pressure to low pressure, and moving air is at low pressure.”
Ecoethics (connections between self and science)
In the Ecoethics activity, families read scenarios from cards and discuss the responses they think would be ethical. Several families may discuss the same issue together. For example, if you work at a restaurant that throws away a lot of food every day and you’re concerned about hunger in your town, would you suggest to your manager that less food be prepared every day or that leftovers be donated to a homeless shelter? Would you collect the leftovers yourself and hand them out? What else could you do? “It’s interesting to see whether the children’s opinions reflect their parents or they’re completely different,” Smith says.
Whole group activities
After students and parents have finished station activities, Smith brings them all back together as a group and they tackle bigger concepts.
Science fair projects
One mock science fair project Smith has used is the Parachute Problem, which can easily be completed in an hour. This project illustrates how to conduct an experiment that is appropriate for a science fair project. Smith walks them through the steps of writing a hypothesis; writing up procedures; collecting, recording, and graphing data; and writing a conclusion. A follow-up session covers writing the paper and constructing a bibliography.
In the Parachute Problem, families compare materials to find out what kind of material provides the best parachute for a small plastic toy soldier. “I have grocery bags, trash bags, cloth, white copy paper, newspaper, and some actual bottle rocket parachute paper,” Smith says. Families use each type of material to create a parachute for their toy soldier, then time how quickly he drops to the ground. The best parachute is the one that drops him slowest.
Construction contests, like the Tower Competition and Egg Drop, are some of Smith’s most popular activities. Smith is the coach of E. B. Aycock’s Science Olympiad team and she has borrowed these activities from that program. The activities are designed for competing groups and illustrate concepts from the middle school science curriculum. While she would like these contests to spur students’ interest in joining the Science Olympiad team, the most important thing is that families enjoy them.
Tower Competition. “They have to build, using whatever materials I provide, the tallest tower that will hold a golf ball for three seconds without falling over. I give them ten bamboo skewers, twenty straws, twenty pipe cleaners, twenty Popsicle sticks, a meter of tape, a meter of string, a couple of sheets of paper, and the golf ball.” In a recent competition, the winning tower was 73.5 centimeters tall (2.4 feet).
Egg Drop. Families also enjoy the Egg Drop event in which they protect an egg using rubber bands, straws, Popsicle sticks, and, sometimes, bubble wrap or foam packing peanuts. Once the families have protected their eggs, they go to the gym and drop them off the bleachers to see whose eggs remain intact.
Future Science Family Fun Night activities
Smith thinks that about half her students have computers at home and computer literacy is an area she’d like to work on with them. “I’ve been trying to do some activities that require them to use the computer and I’ve talked with my principal about doing some family computer skills activities. I’m trying to think of skills that would be beneficial to a parent.” Smith may incorporate webquests into the Science Family Fun Nights schedule to teach families how to use the internet. Since the activities are held in the evening, families can use the computers in the school library or keyboarding lab.
In a webquest, participants use the internet to gather information, then pool their data to solve a common problem. Hurricane evacuation is one possible scenario designed by Smith. A student takes on the role of the mayor of Pensacola, Florida; a sister represents the police force; and the parents act as the tourism industry. Each must use different websites to collect information to prepare an argument for or against evacuation. This webquest could easily align with the seventh grade Standard Course of Study for North Carolina, which includes study of the atmosphere.
Ruth Ann Christian, a sixth grade science and math teacher at E. B. Aycock, has offered to share with Smith an activity she calls Cougar Hunt. “She and her children love doing it and I’m looking forward to trying it,” Smith says. In this activity, a team symbolizes the cougar and has to hunt down enough food to survive. Animals of prey are represented by cups, each marked with the animal’s weight in kilograms. “Teams have to be able to collect fifty kilograms to survive,” Smith explains. “If you don’t, you die.” Smith plans to hide the cups around the library. Each family will be assigned to a table. All the participants have to do is go get one cup at a time and bring them back to the table, but some strategy is necessary for survival. “You can get as many cups as you want, but if you just get squirrels, you have to get fifty cups, because each squirrel is only one kilogram.” There’s a time limit and teams don’t have time to get fifty cups. “So you don’t want to just get squirrels, but there are more squirrels than anything else.”
Cougar Hunt can also incorporate computer skills. Using the library computers, Smith will show families how to collect their data in a spreadsheet. “They’ll type in how many squirrels they had, how many beavers, how many rabbits, and then I’ll show them how to write a formula and how to graph it.” Every squirrel will be multiplied by one, every beaver by five, and so forth, and those numbers will be summed to determine whether each family met the minimum fifty kilograms required for survival.
Science Family Fun Night requires considerable forethought and organization: setting up the stations, furnishing the materials for longer programs, providing refreshments, and making sure families know about the opportunity. Several parents of Smith’s students have kindly agreed to donate refreshments. Smith keeps her station materials organized for future use. “I have a lot of it already together,” she says. “I used to take it all apart and then redo it, but now instead of putting my pennies back in my pocketbook, I keep them in their little bags.”
Smith has been pleased at the reception Science Family Fun Night has gotten so far and she’s excited about the possibility of reaching more families by taking her activities to the community center. “It’s my little effort,” she says. “One bit at a time, trying to make a difference. I just try to think of some fun things that they could come and do, so that it doesn’t feel like schoolwork, but they’re able to work together and learn from it. They seem to have a really good time.”