January/February 2018 – Vol. 31 No. 2

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: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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Accelerating into NGSS – A Statewide Rollout Series Now Accepting Registrations

Posted: Friday, January 19th, 2018

Are you feeling behind on the implementation of NGSS? Then Accelerating into NGSS – the Statewide Rollout event – is right for you!

If you have not experienced Phases 1-4 of the Statewide Rollout, or are feeling behind with the implementation of NGSS, the Accelerating Into NGSS Statewide Rollout will provide you with the greatest hits from Phases 1-4!

Accelerating Into NGSS Statewide Rollout is a two-day training geared toward grade K-12 academic coaches, administrators, curriculum leads, and teacher leaders. Check-in for the two-day rollout begins at 7:30 a.m., followed by a continental breakfast. Sessions run from 8:00 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. on Day One and from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Day Two.

Cost of training is $250 per attendee. Fee includes all materials, continental breakfast, and lunch on both days. It is recommended that districts send teams of four to six, which include at least one administrator. Payment can be made by check or credit card. If paying by check, registration is NOT complete until payment has been received. All payments must be received prior to the Rollout location date you are attending. Paying by credit card secures your seat at time of registration. No purchase orders accepted. No participant cancellation refunds.

For questions or more information, please contact Amy Kennedy at akennedy@sjcoe.net or (209) 468-9027.



MARCH 28-29, 2018
Host: San Mateo County Office of Education
Location: San Mateo County Office of Education, Redwood City

APRIL 10-11, 2018
Host: Orange County Office of Education
Location: Brandman University, Irvine

MAY 1-2, 2018
Host: Tulare County Office of Education
Location: Tulare County Office of Education, Visalia

MAY 3-4, 2018
Host: San Bernardino Superintendent of Schools
Location: West End Educational Service Center, Rancho Cucamonga

MAY 7-8, 2018
Host: Sacramento County Office of Education
Location: Sacramento County Office of Education Conference Center and David P. Meaney Education Center, Mather

JUNE 14-15, 2018
Host: Imperial County Office of Education
Location: Imperial Valley College, Imperial

Presented by the California Department of Education, California County Superintendents Educational Services Association/County Offices of Education, K-12 Alliance @WestEd, California Science Project, and the California Science Teachers Association.

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.

The Teaching and Learning Collaborative, Reflections from an Administrator

Posted: Friday, January 19th, 2018

by Kelly Patchen

My name is Mrs. Kelly Patchen, and I am proud to be an elementary assistant principal working in the Tracy Unified School District (TUSD) at Louis Bohn and McKinley Elementary Schools. Each of the schools I support are Title I K-5 schools with about 450 students, a diverse student population, a high percentage of English Language Learners, and students living in poverty. We’re also lucky to be part of the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative with the K-12 Alliance. 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.

2018 CSTA Conference Call for Proposals

Posted: Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

CSTA is pleased to announce that we are now accepting proposals for 90-minute workshops and three- and six-hour short courses for the 2018 California Science Education Conference. Workshops and short courses make up the bulk of the content and professional learning opportunities available at the conference. In recognition of their contribution, members who present a workshop or short course receive 50% off of their registration fees. Click for more information regarding proposals, or submit one today by following the links below.

Short Course Proposal

Workshop Proposal 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.

CSTA’s New Administrator Facebook Group Page

Posted: Monday, January 15th, 2018

by Holly Steele

The California Science Teachers Association’s mission is to promote high-quality science education, and one of the best practice’s we use to fulfill that mission is through the use of our Facebook group pages. CSTA hosts several closed and moderated Facebook group pages for specific grade levels, (Elementary, Middle, and High School), pages for district coaches and science education faculty, and the official CSTA Facebook page. These pages serve as an online resource for teachers and coaches to exchange teaching methods, materials, staying update on science events in California and asking questions. CSTA is happy to announce the creation of a 6th group page called, California Administrators Supporting Science. 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: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

Find Your Reason to Engage

Posted: Monday, January 15th, 2018

by Jill Grace

I was recently reflecting on events in the news and remembered that several years ago, National Public Radio had a story about a man named Stéphane Hessel, a World War II French resistance fighter, Nazi concentration camp survivor, and contributor to the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The story focused on a book he had published, Time for Outrage (2010).

In it, Hessel makes the argument that the worst attitude is indifference:

“Who is in charge; who are the decision makers? It’s not always easy to discern. We’re not dealing with a small elite anymore, whose actions we can clearly identify. We are dealing with a vast, interdependent world that is interconnected in unprecedented ways. But there are unbearable things all around us. You have to look for them; search carefully. Open your eyes and you will see. This is what I tell young people: If you spend a little time searching, you will find your reasons to engage. The worst attitude is indifference. ‘There’s nothing I can do; I get by’ – adopting this mindset will deprive you of one of the fundamental qualities of being human: outrage.  Our capacity for protest is indispensable, as is our freedom to engage.”

His words make me take pause when I think of the status of science in the United States. A general “mistrust” of science is increasingly pervasive, as outlined in a New Yorker article from the summer of 2016. 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.