May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Family Science Fair Nights

Posted: Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

In the last issue of CCS, I talked in a general way about family science nights as a way to get families involved in doing hands-on science together.  In the next few issues I will go into more detail about a few types of family science nights.

Since most schools are in the thick of science fair season right now, I thought I’d start with the most structured type of science night—a family science fair night.  I’ve done these two ways.  For groups that are primarily older upper elementary students and their families, doing an experiment with the whole group is a great way to model the process of doing science fair.  For more mixed groups with more younger kids, this may be too structured and a more exploratory model can be used.

First, a whole group science fair night.

For this kind of night, we set up in the cafeteria with tables arranged so families can work together on the project.  On one wall we have a big science fair board set up with the headings that we will fill in as we go—question, research, hypothesis, data, etc.  At the front are chart stands are set up with chart paper and tape ready to go (use sticky chart paper if you can afford it).  Alternatively you can use a document reader so you can write in a science fair journal and the audience can follow.  I usually have a few sponge activity stations set up for families as they arrive.  Often a member of the local astronomy club will set up some telescopes in front of the building.  You can also have an area where winning science fair projects from past years are on display.

One person will facilitate the experiment and another person will help by charting responses from the kids that will go up on the board.  It is visually more interesting to build the project on the board, but be sure to emphasize that when they do the project it needs to be done in the journal first, with the board being done later as a display.  When families arrive they can sign in and pick up any handouts.

I have found two experiments that work very well for this type of project.  (I’m interested in hearing about other good possibilities!)  The first is a more open-ended experiment with mealworms that helps participants to develop good questions.  In the second, an experiment with water tension, participants are given the question and learn about controlling variables.

Mealworms: For the mealworm experiment, when families sit down at a table, they find a cup of about 10 mealworms, a hand lens, and some different colors and types of paper (foil, sand paper, wax paper, cardboard).  Mealworms are a great subject for a science fair project because they are cheap (at the pet store) so they can generate a large sample size for experiments without breaking the bank.  At the front of the room instructions are posted to start to examine the mealworms and make observations about their behavior.

After everyone has arrived, make introductions, welcome the families, and then ask for some students to share their observations.  If you have a cordless microphone, you can walk around and solicit responses.  If you don’t, invite kids to come up to the front to speak into the microphone there.  After some observations are charted, add the chart paper with observations to the big science fair board under the “research” heading.  Emphasize that having some experience with the subject is important before you can ask a good question.

I then pass out a sheet of paper with information at elementary level about mealworms and their lifecycle.  I give families five minutes to read it together and to write down three interesting things they learned about mealworms.  I then invite kids to share what they learned and these ideas are charted and added to the “research.”  The source of the article should be written down and added to the “bibliography” section of the board.

Now it’s question time.  Ask each family to think about their observations and research and think of several good questions that they think will be good science fair questions.  You might want to listen in on the conversations and ask kids with good ideas if they will share with the group.  This will ensure some testable questions.  After a few minutes, invite kids to share.  Chart out about ten questions.  Now explain that while these are all good questions, some can be answered by doing an experiment and some cannot.  Go through the list and ask the audience to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down if that question can be answered by doing an experiment.  They will do a pretty good job of this.  Once this process is done, you will have a list of possible science fair questions that could lead to a project.

Some of the questions will be about the life cycle.  Point out that these are great projects to do at home, but that they will take several weeks and we need to do an experiment right now.  Hopefully one or two of the questions will lead to an immediate experiment, questions like, “Do mealworms prefer light or dark?  Do mealworms like to go up or down?  Do mealworms prefer sand paper or regular paper?”  Choose one and write it down as the question on the board.  Have the audience vote on the hypothesis and write it down as an “if…, then…” statement.  For example, “If we put mealworms on a slanted piece of cardboard then more mealworms will go up than down.”

Design a fast experiment and write down a procedure.  Have each family do the experiment with their ten mealworms and then send up a kid with the data.  Create a T- chart for the data at the front of the room.  Kids will come up and report their data, for instance, “Two went up and eight went down.”   Because each family is contributing data, this creates a very large sample size.  Once all the data is compiled it can be put on the board and a graph made to display it.

Continue in the same manner to write up results, evaluate the hypothesis and write a conclusion.  Most of the time the experiment won’t give clear results, and this is a good time to make the point that it is okay to conclude that the results are mixed and that further experimentation is needs.  It is also a good time to point out that a hypothesis is “supported” or “not supported,” rather than “proved or disproved.”

Writing the acknowledgments is a time to make the point that it is okay to get help on a science fair project, but that you need to be detailed and specific about what help you received.

Pennies: This experiment helps to clarify what variables are and how to control them.  It follows the same basic process as the mealworm experiment.  Each family has a cup of water, an eyedropper, paper towels, and several pennies.  After introductions, begin with the question, “How many drops of water can fit on a penny?”  First ask for predictions.  These will usually be anywhere from three to six drops.  Now let each family try a few times.  While they are doing this, walk around and make observations.

After everyone has had a chance, let kids shout out the number of drops that they got.  These numbers will be surprisingly high and have a wide range.  Have some kids come up and share observation which you can chart as part of the research section.  Examples will probably include, “It looked like a dome or bubble,” “It magnified the penny,” “It wiggles like jello.”

Now pass out some articles written at an elementary level on water tension.  The Exploratorium website has a good one.  Give families five minutes to read and then invite kids to share findings to add to the research.

Now to the question of variables.  Point out that they number of drops they reported was very different.  Put the word “changes” at the top of a piece of chart paper.  Ask what changes would affect the number of drops that fit on a penny.  Encourage each family to come up with at least three.  Point out that changes could be to the penny, the water, or to the way drops are added.  Again have kids come up and share ideas.  Examples will be, “The size of the drops, heads or tails, the temperature of the water, how high you hold the dropper, how hard you squeeze, how clean or dirty the penny.” Chart all responses.

Now cover up the word changes at the top of the chart with the word “Variables.”  Explain that they have just brainstormed a list of many of the variables that affect the outcome of this experiment.  To design an experiment we need to choose just one variable to test and control all of the others as best we can.  Ask if there is a variable on the list that we could test in the next 10 minutes and let an audience member choose.  Circle this and write “experimental variable” next to it.  Explain that all the other variables on the chart are now control variables.

Have the audience vote on the hypothesis and then write this down in “if… then…” form.  For example, if we add drops from 1 cm and from 5 cm high, we think we will get more drops on the penny from 1 cm.  Now you can quickly write a procedure for testing the experimental variable.  Go through the list of all the other variables and ask for ideas on how to control these.  For example ask, “Heads or tails?” and write down in the procedure whatever the audience tells you.

Some of the variables will be hard to control.  For example, “How hard you squeeze the dropper.”  Point out that what makes a very good project is an awareness of the variables and good solutions for controlling them.  “For tonight we will try to control these by having the same person do both trials and they will have to try and be consistent.”

Run the experiment and collect data as in the mealworm experiment.  From this point on, the structure of the evening is the same as for the  mealworm experiment.

A less structured evening for younger kids

For a group with many younger students, the step-by-step experiments described above might be too structured.  For younger students, I set up many hands-on stations like those described in the January CCS, but add a twist.

Each family gets a sheet of paper on which they can write down several questions that they come up with at each station.  As the night is proceeding, talk to families and get questions to add to a big list at the front of the room.

At the end of the night, pull the whole group together and explain that while these are all good questions, some can be answered by doing an experiment and some cannot.  Go through the list and ask the audience to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down if that question can be answered by doing an experiment.  They will do a pretty good job of this.  Once this process is done, you will have a list of possible science fair questions that could lead to a project.

Pete A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is region 4 director for CSTA.

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.

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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. 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 NGSS 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.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. 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.