August 16, 2014

Family Science Night: Hands-on, Minds-on Fun!

Guest post by Carol Wooten

As one walks the hallway on the evening of Family Science Night, the echoes of excited young scientists fill the school building. From extracting strawberry DNA to investigating a car that runs on alternative fuel to constructing a Rube Goldberg machine from everyday materials, the students are actively engaged in learning that will impact them for a lifetime.

According to the well-known quotation from Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” This ideology was taken into account with the design of Family Science Night. Our focus was to involve all participants through stimulating hands-on investigations. As with science investigations during class, the emphasis was not on simply telling or teaching, but making science come to life for families.

As a member of the planning committee for Family Science night and eventual chairperson for over a decade, I had the opportunity to directly observe the evolution of the evening and its amazing positive impact on both parents and students. Ten years ago, Family Science Night included five presentations from parents who were scientists and several university professors. The next year, students also became involved and conducted hands-on presentations for various sessions such as basic physics, landforms, and ecosystems. We included make-and-take stations where students (and parents) were able to construct and work on various challenges such as using science concepts to design and build the tallest straw tower.

Within the past five years, the popularity of Family Science Night has grown to over thirty presentations and make-and-take stations. Hence, the attendance has increased from under one hundred participants to over 500. The development of Family Science Night has flourished each year. As schools begin holding these exciting evenings of science, those organizing the event should remember to start small and then grow during consecutive years. Having parents and community involved in any aspect with the evening is vital to a successful event.

The key element of Family Science Night is that the evening is hands-on and minds-on. When university professors and scientists in the community agree to present at Family Science Night, this agreement includes a hands-on and often inquiry-based session where participants are able to explore the concept rather than receive a lecture.

In addition to outstanding speakers who incorporate hands-on learning for participants to explore a wealth of science concepts, schools may also integrate a science project into the Family Science Night. The cafeteria could be utilized to display these family science projects. Due to the end of year testing in science for fifth graders, the fifth grade students’ projects envelop one of the main concepts that will be assessed.

Family Science Nights may also progress into various formats.  For instance, students may share what they have learned from science class in stations using hands-on and inquiry based models, volunteers implement a variety of make-and-take stations, local scientists incorporate presentations that encompass hands-on and minds-on learning, or a combination of all of the above idea formats.

How to Plan and Host a Family Science Night

If schools are initiating a thrilling Family Science Night for the first time or for the hundredth time, the guidelines below will help to create an outstanding event that not only promotes science, but also involves the family and community in an astounding learning experience.

The list below is a starting point for a Family Science Night. Since each school is unique, organizers should feel free to modify the list and event planning to meet the needs of the school. A more detailed general planning list is found at; however, remember that the list is not cookie-cutter. It can be adapted to meet the needs of various schools.
  1. Develop a school team of interested members and delegate a chairperson. The committee can include staff members and parents—anyone who is motivated in enhancing children’s love of science. Establish meeting dates and begin to assign roles.
  2. Decide on the size of the event. Will you have five presentations or are you expanding to over thirty? Your size may also depend on your budget. Our budget was $400 for 30 stations, which mainly provides materials for the make-and-take stations. However, the event has been run with less than a $100 budget—you simply have to minimize the materials for make-and-takes or depend on a variety of donations to facilitate these stations.
  3. Develop a theme for the event. For example, “Connecting with Super Scientists” was last year’s theme that emphasized the integration of technology. 
  4. Brainstorm a list of possible presenters and session topics. Conduct research of excellent presenters by first determining parents skilled in the area and then contacting other universities and/or companies to present. What types of content for presentations would yield high interest?
  5. Determine the number of make-and take stations and the content for each station. Examples of make-and-take stations include straw towers, bird feeders, UV bead bracelets, Rube Goldberg machines that are designed using scrap materials, Oreo moon phases, and silly putty.
  6. Create a “to do” list in preparation for this sensational evening.
  7. Distribute speaker invitation letters.
  8. Organize the presenters/speakers based on their attendance replies. Which presenters noted they were able to attend? Which presenters were unable to attend but showed an interest for next year’s event?
  9. Assign classrooms to the presenters and stations.
  10. Create a program for the event. A sample program can be found on the aforementioned website.
  11. Purchase and organize make-and-take materials. Organizing and labeling each station’s materials in a separate box is very beneficial. Include precise directions for the station in the box.
  12. Ask for additional help and decide what roles need to be completed the day of the event. An efficient method of structuring and assigning your helpers is to use a program such as Sign Up Genius.
  13. Confirm speakers/presenters again (a week prior to the event). It is also beneficial to confirm what types of technology the speaker needs for the presentation.
  14. Prepare packets/envelopes for the presenters. It could include a map of the school, a student-created thank you note, and/or a voucher for free food (if food is being served at the event). The thank you notes are always greatly appreciated.
  15. On the day of the event, greet speakers and monitor to make sure all technology needs are met. 
  16. Following Family Science Night, evaluate the evening. What went well? What areas would you improve? Then, celebrate and set the date for the next year’s event.

Passport System Encourages Participation

During our first several years implementing a Family Science Night, we realized that attendees were definitely drawn to the make-and-take stations such as the pine cone bird feeders or straw towers. But how could we ensure that all presenters were visited equitably? This question led to the design of a passport system. With this system, attendees received a passport handout with their program upon arrival at the Family Science Night. After attending each session, they would earn a sticker from the presenter or volunteer to place on this form. Click the page of passport sticker image on the right to download our passport packet.

Once all stickers were earned, the participants returned the form to the main table to receive a prize. These prizes have included anything from science related washable tattoos to neon “Family Science Night” pencils. Participants also completed the form with their name and contact information to place into the bin for a grand prize drawing—a $25 gift card that is given away at the conclusion of Family Science Night.

Furthermore, Family Science Night provides an excellent opportunity to create leadership roles for students, especially fourth and fifth graders. Student ambassadors work to assist with sign design, greeting presenters, distributing programs, and creating thank you notes for all presenters. Schools may have students apply for this position, or the role can be teacher selected.  Students take pride in their roles and work diligently to ensure they fulfill their assigned ambassador duties.

With each year, we embark on Family Science Night as a new and exciting experience. As a science committee, we learn from each event and strive to make the next year’s Family Science Night even more electrifying.

Carol Wooten is a fifth grade math and science teacher at Hunter GT/AIG Magnet Elementary in Raleigh, NC where she is entering her seventeenth year of teaching. Wooten is a former Kenan Fellow whose project was entitled “Science Inquiry and Assessment.” She is a past recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching. Wooten serves on the NCAEE board as the Teacher Director at Large. Carol is also a member of the NC Association of Elementary Educators Board of Directors.

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