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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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.