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Working With NSTA Student Chapters on Community-Focused Science Events

By Jim McDonald

Posted on 2020-10-07

Jim McDonald
Jim McDonald

I am the faculty advisor for the NSTA Student Chapter at Central Michigan University. Our chapter was established in 2002, and our preservice teacher members work with local schools on science events for parents and their children. Our student members are majoring in science education at the elementary and secondary level and are eager to gain experience within the community.

Family Science Nights

Family Science Nights can last from one to two hours. A priority should be given to providing different activities with which students can engage. The features of a good Family Science activity are that they are hands-on, interactive, engaging, visually stimulating, last about five minutes each, and can be done together by parents and children. The supplies for the activities are simple, usually consumable, easy to obtain, and easy for children to use.  

Some sample activities for Family Science Nights can include flying machines, Oobleck, sink and float, aluminum boats, Mystery Solutions, Kitchen Chemistry, balloon rockets, and building structures. Every station or center should also have a parent sheet that tells parents the recipe for the activity and extensions that can be done at home after the event. 

Family Engineering

Similar to Family Science, Family Engineering Night is an event designed to promote engineering to elementary students and expose them to a variety of fun real-world examples of how engineering affects the world around us. It can be a good resource for schools (or other organizations that work with young people) that are working to improve science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) awareness and want to motivate students to consider engineering as an interesting, dynamic, and impactful future profession.

The event is set up as a “Center” style concept. You will need a lot of space, so the event is typically held in a school’s gymnasium or cafeteria. You typically prepare 8–10 stations, each with a different engineering activity, and students and their families can rotate through the activities in any order they choose. Upon arriving at the event, students are given an Engineering Night “Blueprint,” which acts as a guide for the stations and allows students to check off activities they have completed. The event typically lasts around two hours.

Popular activities for an engineering event can be Design Challenges. Design challenges do not have one right answer and are iterative, meaning that we repeat the steps as many times as needed, making improvements along the way as we learn from failure and uncover new design possibilities to arrive at great solutions.

Science-Themed Reading Nights

Many schools have reading nights for families that have a variety of activities that promote literacy, featuring things parents can do with their children at home and introducing children to good books and reading habits. You could plan a Reading Night with a science theme. All of the books could be about science and engineering, and students and teachers could dress up as their favorite science character. The idea is to promote reading through a science perspective.

Part of the event could consist of science centers, as described in the Family Science and Family Engineering events above. This can combine the engagement of science activities with learning about careers and science concepts in a fun and interactive manner. Just a few centers would be enough to get parents and children working together on an investigation or designing something.

Jim McDonald is a professor of science education at Central Michigan University. He also serves as the faculty advisor for the NSTA Student Chapter at Central Michigan. He served as president of the Council for Elementary Science International, NSTA’s elementary affiliate, and as chair of the NSTA Alliance of Affiliates. E-mail feedback to or to Twitter @jimscienceguy. 

Careers Engineering General Science Literacy STEM Teaching Strategies Middle School Elementary High School

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