May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

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CSTA Annual Conference Early Bird Rates End July 14

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Jessica Sawko

Teachers engaged in workshop activity

Teachers engaging in hands-on learning during a workshop at the 2016 CSTA conference.

Don’t miss your chance to register at the early bird rate for the 2017 CSTA Conference – the early-bird rate closes July 14. Need ideas on how to secure funding for your participation? Visit our website for suggestions, a budget planning tool, and downloadable justification letter to share with your admin. Want to take advantage of the early rate – but know your district will pay eventually? Register online today and CSTA will reimburse you when we receive payment from your district/employer. (For more information on how that works contact Zi Stair in the office for details – 916-979-7004 or

New Information Now Available On-line:

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.

Goodbye Outgoing and Welcome Incoming CSTA Board Members

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Jill Grace

Jill Grace, CSTA President, 2017-2019

On July 1, 2017 five CSTA members concluded their service and four new board members joined the ranks of the CSTA Board of Directors. CSTA is so grateful for all the volunteer board of directors who contribute hours upon hours of time and energy to advance the work of the association. At the June 3 board meeting, CSTA was able to say goodbye to the outgoing board members and welcome the incoming members.

This new year also brings with it a new president for CSTA. As of July 1, 2017 Jill Grace is the president of the California Science Teachers Association. Jill is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, a former middle school science teacher, and is currently a Regional Director with the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd where she works with California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative districts and charter networks in the San Diego area.

Outgoing Board Members

  • Laura Henriques (President-Elect: 2011 – 2013, President: 2013 – 2015, Past President: 2015 – 2017)
  • Valerie Joyner (Region 1 Director: 2009 – 2013, Primary Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Mary Whaley (Informal Science Education Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Sue Campbell (Middle School/Jr. High Director: 2015 – 2017)
  • Marcus Tessier (2-Year College Director: 2015 – 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.

Finding My Student’s Motivation of Learning Through Engineering Tasks

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Huda Ali Gubary and Susheela Nath

It’s 8:02 and the bell rings. My students’ walk in and pick up an entry ticket based on yesterday’s lesson and homework. My countdown starts for students to begin…3, 2, 1. Ten students are on task and diligently completing the work, twenty are off task with behaviors ranging from talking up a storm with their neighbors to silently staring off into space. This was the start of my classes, more often than not. My students rarely showed the enthusiasm for a class that I had eagerly prepared for. I spent so much time searching for ways to get my students excited about the concepts they were learning. I wanted them to feel a connection to the lessons and come into my class motivated about what they were going to learn next. I would ask myself how I could make my class memorable where the kids were in the driver’s seat of learning. Incorporating engineering made this possible. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Unveils Updated Recommended Literature List

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson unveiled an addition of 285 award-winning titles to the Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list.

“The books our students read help broaden their perspectives, enhance their knowledge, and fire their imaginations,” Torlakson said. “The addition of these award-winning titles represents the state’s continued commitment to the interests and engagement of California’s young readers.”

The Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list is a collection of more than 8,000 titles of recommended reading for children and adolescents. Reflecting contemporary and classic titles, including California authors, this online list provides an exciting range of literature that students should be reading at school and for pleasure. Works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama to provide for a variety of tastes, interests, and abilities. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

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