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 . According to a 2014 study, there are 3.6 unemployed workers for every job in the United States , 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 . 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 .
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.
 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.
 STEM Help Wanted 2014
 Engler, J. 2012. STEM Education Is the Key to the U.S.’s Economic Future. June 15, 2012. US News & World Reports.
 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.
Posted: Saturday, January 14th, 2017
The Council of Math/Science Educators of San Mateo County will be hosting the 41st annual STEM Conference this February 4, 2017 at the San Mateo County Office of Education. This STEM Conference is the place to get lots of new lessons and ideas to use in your classroom. There will be over twenty-five workshops and a variety of exhibitors that provide participants with a wide range of practical and realistic ideas and resources to use in their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs from Pre-K to grade 12. With California’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards, we are dedicated to ensuring that we prepare our teachers to take on these educational policies.
Teachers, administrators and parents are invited to explore the many exciting aspects of STEM education and learn about and discuss the latest news, information and issues. This is also an opportunity to network with colleagues who can assist you in building your programs and meet new friends that share your interests and love of teaching.
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
What follows are several opportunities for science teachers to work with the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) on various projects that have direct or indirect implications for the implementation of NGSS in California. Please consider applying to one or more of the following opportunities.
CSET Field Testing Opportunities
Field testing opportunities for future CSET Multiple Subjects and Science tests are available beginning Dec. 5, 2016. Participants will have the choice between a $50 Barnes and Noble eGift Card or a $75 test fee voucher that may be applied to future test registration fees. For more information, including how to register to participate, please visit: http://www.pearsonvue.com/espilot/cset.asp. Learn More…
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
Achieve has launched and is facilitating an EQuIP Peer Review Panel for Science–a group of expert reviewers who will evaluate the quality and alignment of lessons and units to the standards–in an effort to identify and shine a spotlight on emerging high-quality lesson and unit plans designed for the NGSS.
If you or your state, district, school, or organization has designed NGSS-aligned instructional materials, please consider submitting these in order to help provide educators across the country with various models and templates of high-quality lesson and unit plans. Learn More…
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
An upcoming Perry Outreach Program on Saturday, April 22, 2017 at the Orthopaedic Institute for Children in Los Angeles, CA. The Perry Outreach Program is a free, one-day, hands-on experience for high school and college-aged women who are interested in pursuing careers in medicine and engineering. Students will hear from women leaders in these fields and try it for themselves by performing mock orthopaedic surgeries and biomechanics experiments. Learn More…
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
by Jessica Sawko
January 2017 has proven to be a very busy month for science education policy and CA NGSS implementation activities. CSTA has been and will be there every step of the way, seeking and enacting all options to support high-quality science education and the successful implementation of CA NGSS.
California Department of Education/U.S. Department of Education Science Double-Testing Waiver Hearing
The year started with California Department of Education’s (CDE) hearing with the U.S. Department of Education conducted via WebEx on January 6, 2017. This hearing was the final step in California’s efforts to secure a waiver from the federal government in order to discontinue administration of the old CST and suspension of the reporting of student test scores on a science assessment for two years. As reported by EdSource, the U.S. Department of Education representative, Ann Whalen, a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary John King Jr., committed to making her final ruling “very shortly.” Deputy Superintendent Keric Ashley presented on behalf of CDE during the hearing and did an excellent job describing the broad-based support for this waiver in California, the rationale for the waiver, and California’s commitment to the successful implementation of a new high-quality science assessment. As previously reported, California is moving forward with its plans to administer a census pilot assessments this spring. The testing window is set to open on March 20, 2017. For more information visit New CA Science Test: What You Should Know.