September 2016 – Vol. 29 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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California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at 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.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. 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.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” 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.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.