September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Backyard Mystery: Solving a Mystery with Science

Posted: Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

by Peggy G. Lemaux and Barbara Alonso


The Backyard Mystery curriculum was developed by Dr. Peggy G. Lemaux, and her assistant, Barbara Alonso, Science Communication Specialist, at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Jenne Stonaker at Stanford University also helped with the Backyard Mystery curriculum development. It was developed as a part of the project, “Collaborative Research Strategies: STEMware™ – Designing Immersive Biology Learning Simulations for Formal and Informal Settings”, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF ITEST Award Number 0929717).

Research Background. The underlying reason for the creation of this curriculum was the fact that America’s youth are not currently armed with the necessary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills to compete in today’s technology-driven workforce [1]. According to a 2014 study, there are 3.6 unemployed workers for every job in the United States [2], compared with only one unemployed STEM worker for two unfilled STEM jobs. Many jobs are going unfilled simply because of the need for individuals with an educational background in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [3]. Middle and high school students are generally uninterested in STEM fields and have little appreciation of the fact that their lack of understanding of basic biology means they may be unable to make educated decisions in their daily lives [4].

Learning Research Questions. The motivation for this effort was an attempt to reignite middle school enthusiasm for science and math through interactive paper and physical activities. As we developed this curriculum, the challenge was to translate complex scientific procedures such as ELISA (Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay), PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) and DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) sequencing, into activities that were both engaging and informative. Using the backyard as the centerpiece of the curriculum was intentional, as we strived to make lessons and activities have personal meaning to participants. Focusing on elements with which they could relate, e.g., family pets, backyard gardens and tummy aches, make the activities real in their own lives, and give them a sense of how these scientific concepts affect their daily lives.

Curriculum development. Lessons in the Backyard Mystery curriculum focus on diseases, pathogens and the bioSTEM workforce and adhere to National Science Education Standards in Life Sciences. The original NSF award involved creating two curricula. The first was a “serious cybergame”, termed “Zombie Plague”, intended for high school players to explore real-world, STEM technologies and careers using biology-related game scenarios involving investigative science related to pathogen identification. The second curriculum, Backyard Mystery, focuses on the same topics but features interactive paper and physical activities, rather than cyber games and is intended for middle school participants in afterschool settings.

The Backyard Mystery Curriculum. The curriculum is designed in two formats, Expanded and Combined, to accommodate different afterschool learning situations. In the Expanded Lessons, there are three individual teaching sessions, where the goal is to engage participants deeply in the topics. It is divided into three stand-alone lessons to be completed sequentially in 40-50 minute sessions. In Expanded Lesson 2, both hands-on and paper-based activities are offered to allow for more flexibility and for parts to be repeated to give participants more exposure to content. In the Combined Lesson (~1-1.5 hours), simpler versions of the content is broken into three sections, which cover all major topics but in less detail. The curriculum also lends itself to classroom teachers, who might select certain handouts or activities to fit with their particular lesson plans.

Learning About Organisms. The first lesson (Expanded Lesson 1/Combined Lesson, Section 1) introduces participants to four different types of disease-causing organisms through a matching card game, “Culprit’s Spell”. Game cards have colorful images of fungi, parasites, viruses and bacteria and participants learn that certain traits can be used to identify each organism, but do not necessarily give clues to which organisms cause disease. Participants receive “in-training” badges representing different STEM careers.

The Backyard Mystery. In the second lesson (Expanded Lesson 2/Combined Lesson, Section 2) participants are introduced to four panels representing the Backyard.


Each panel has something that is “not right. The problem in each panel is caused by one of four organisms, or culprits, that were introduced in the Culprit’s Spell game. Participants will focus on one panel (depending on their interests) for the remainder of the lesson(s). For example, 4-H groups, interested in animal science, might focus on panels B or D.

“Cool Tools”. The group is then introduced to contemporary “Cool Tools”, used by scientists, to determine the ”culprit” causing the problem in the backyard. They learn about the tools by completing activities. Hands-on or paper-based activities, are used to teach about four “Cool Tool” technologies: PCR, ELISA, DNA Sequencing, and Morphology.


Each of four groups performs one of the “Cool Tools” activities concurrently. When completed, participants share what they learned about each technology in a “teach back”. After each activity is completed, each group gets a puzzle piece, associated with their panel and their “Cool Tool” and this piece contains code used in the next lesson to solve the mystery.

Revealing the Culprit. In the third lesson (Expanded Lesson 3/Combined Lesson, Section 3), participants are given a decoder to figure out the code in their puzzle pieces and learn which organism was the pathogen and responsible for the disease in their backyard panel. After the mystery is solved, participants get new badges, featuring a STEM career that matches the career associated with the identified pathogen, e.g., mycologist, virologist. They also use a “Jeopardy-type” game to explore career opportunities in STEM fields.

The lessons also feature a Math Box, with math questions related to the subject matter, Beyond the Backyard with online resources that participants can explore on their own and a Glossary with terms used in the lessons. The Curriculum is complimentary and is available here.  Check out other educational resources here.

Evaluation. Dr. Stonaker, one of the developers, has been extensively involved in curriculum development for summer and afterschool venues for middle school students. She used a course for middle school students at the San Jose Tech Museum to test the Combined Lesson activities with grades 4-7 students. That information was used to guide final development of the curriculum. We also used feedback from teacher workshops and from surveys distributed to individuals who download the curriculum to improve the curriculum. To date we have had 3,756 downloads of the Expanded curriculum and 4,617 downloads of the Combined curriculum. We are currently working with a film crew in Los Angeles to create videos to help illustrate how afterschool facilitators and teachers can use the curriculum.

[1]       Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. 2007. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

[2]       STEM Help Wanted 2014

[3]       Engler, J. 2012. STEM Education Is the Key to the U.S.’s Economic Future. June 15, 2012. US News & World Reports.

[4] Lukin, K. 2013. Exciting middle and high school students about immunology: an easy, inquiry-based lesson. Immunologic Research 55: 201-209).

Peggy G. Lemaux is the Cooperative Extension Specialist and Barbara Alonso is the Science Communication Specialist, both at the University of California, Berkeley. Peggy is a member of CSTA.

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State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.