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Teaching Teachers

STEM and Community Engagement

Providing Preservice Teachers Authentic Experiences Beyond the Classroom

Science and Children—April/May 2019 (Volume 56, Issue 8)

By Amanda Steiner, Jennifer Lemke, Derrick Nero, and Sheryl McGlamery

While field-based experiences provide opportunities for preservice teachers to apply the theories they learn in their coursework, opportunities to help develop purposeful relationships with families are limited. A critical component of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA 2008) Elementary School Science and the Parent Involvement in Science Learning (NSTA 2009) position statements include language that highlights the importance of forming partnerships between schools and parents, drawing attention to the critical role parents and caregivers play in promoting and nurturing a child’s desire to engage with science. Meaningful partnerships between school and families can foster positive support for the sciences as well as motivate student learning (Ainley and Ainley 2011). This realization fostered dialogue between a group of university instructors and our school partners to implement a plan to create a school-wide family learning experience. With the goal to provide preservice teachers an authentic community-based experience, Family Engineering Night—a pilot initiative that focused on fostering relationships with families, deepening university partnerships with local school districts, and providing the community opportunities to engage with STEM concepts—was implemented. This initiative invited educators, students, and families to explore hands-on, reproducible materials that provoked problem-solving and critical thinking (Becker and Park 2011). In this article, we outline how university and community-based stakeholders provided an opportunity for preservice teachers to create an authentic learning experience for students and their families that expanded content beyond the walls of the classroom.

Developing a Plan

The first step in the planning process was to secure funding. University instructors enlisted the help of a fellow STEM instructor and together they wrote and obtained a grant from the Sherwood Foundation that was used to purchase K–8 engineering kits (Family Engineering 2017). The kits, which were purchased for just over $900, included supplies for 11 practical STEM activities and four engineering challenges (Table 1). A detailed handbook of activities and challenges, guidelines for conducting a family engineering event, laminated activity and challenge station introductions, and materials comprised of everyday household items accompanied the kits, allowing stations to be easily replicated at home by caregivers.

Table 1

Activities and challenges selected for the event.





Engineers use household materials to create a structure that can bare weight.

Science and Engineering Practices

• Asking Questions and Defining Problems

• Developing and Using Models

• Analyzing and Interpreting Data

Disciplinary Core Ideas

• ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions

• ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution

• PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter

• PS2.A: Forces and Motion

• PS2.B: Types of Interactions

• PS3.C: Relationship Between Energy and Forces

Crosscutting Concepts

• Structure and Function

• Cause and Effect

• Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

Forces and Motion

Engineers experiment with a variety of toy cars to test their aerodynamics.


Engineers use aluminum foil and pennies to test the strength of their creation in water.


Engineers design a structure and use cues to try to get their partner to replicate the structure.

Slope, Velocity, and Gravity

Engineers are provided tubing and marbles and must move the marble from one end of the tubing to the other.


Engineers are provided with a variety of measurement tools and must select which tool they would use to accurately measure an object.

Stability, Strength, and Forces

Engineers use materials to build a tower. They must follow a list of rules to successfully keep the structure from falling.

Preservice teachers utilized the engineering design process to explore the activities in the kit to plan hands-on stations for families to learn about STEM concepts. Next, they were tasked with creating management plans for the materials in the kit that aligned the NGSS standards for each interactive station offered at Family Engineering Night. At the conclusion of the event, the partner school retained the kits and the management plans to assist with planning for implementation in the classroom.

Recruitment and Training

Inservice teachers and preservice teachers played a vital role in the success of this event. The school principal solicited the participation of 20 inservice teachers, the recruitment of preservice teachers was left to the university instructors. The methods course instructors provided three 75-minute class periods to unpack and share the expectations of this event with students, allowing 54 preservice teachers to become familiar with the STEM/engineering kits. The first class period was provided during the regularly scheduled science methods course to allow preservice teachers opportunities to move through stations, explore the materials, and at the conclusion of the class session, determine which activity they would like to develop as a station for Family Engineering Night.

The instructors understood that in order for this event to be successful, time was needed for preservice teachers to collaborate with their group members and create their station. A second 75-minute class period was built into the semester for instructors to review expectations for the evening and students were provided with time to work. At the conclusion of this time, preservice teachers were tasked with creating a management plan that outlined the learning objectives, aligned the activity to NGSS, highlighted the procedures for implementation, and communicated how they would engage with children and families. The second task preservice teachers were to complete was creating a tri-fold visual board that explained their station. English was not the first language of many of the families expected to attend the event, therefore, preservice teachers were encouraged to create visual displays and handouts that helped communicate the purpose and processes of their station. These station handouts and fliers were sent to the school building to be translated into the language predominantly spoken by the students and families of the school community.

As the night of the event approached, preservice teachers were provided with one last class period to implement their management plans and share their tri-fold boards. Groups presented their stations to one another, allowing an opportunity to consider the terminology of the content, roadblocks that might occur in the design process, and successful ways to engage families with materials. This class time provided students with an opportunity to run-through their station and get feedback allowing groups to make revisions to resources or materials before implementing it with students and their families.

As preservice teachers prepared for the evening, the partner school also played a key role in advertising this event to the school community. Flyers, printed in English and native languages, were created and sent home with students to promote the event. Boxed dinners and a STEM-themed children’s book, provided by grant funding, were also advertised as part of this event to encourage families to participate.

Community Collaboration

A large percentage of students attending this school are southeast Asian immigrants and refugees. Underrepresented minorities, such as this demographic, are less likely than whites to attend college or to graduate (National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences 2013). With this awareness, instructors and building administrators found it imperative that they be intentional in involving outside community members to help students understand that STEM concepts can translate into professional opportunities. This belief resulted in a partnership with a university engineering student organization that promotes STEM-based concepts with underrepresented populations and a local engineering firm in the community. Both of these organizations created stations for elementary students and their families to engage with various STEM concepts.

The Evening’s Logistics

As stakeholders worked together to plan for the event, the logistics of how families would proceed through the activities was at the forefront of discussions (Figure 1). As families entered, they were given a “work plan” explaining how they would collaborate with their family to complete the evening’s events. A translator was available to ensure all families were greeted and had an understanding of what tasks to complete. From there, all families were to follow the work plan completing the following tasks:

1.Engineering Exploratory Stations: 12 stations were set up and managed by preservice teachers and building staff. Families were encouraged to explore a minimum of three stations in the gymnasium and complete a reflection sheet that encouraged them to share what they learned and if they enjoyed the station.

2.Community Partner: A local engineering firm set up various exploratory stations for families to engage with. These activities included a virtual tour of the school and food engineering. Families were provided with toothpicks and marshmallows and tasked with constructing a large tower. The community partner also had visual boards created to represent projects they were currently working on in the local area.

3.Community Partner: The university engineering student organization created a road rally robotics station for families to explore. Students and their families were able to race their robots through the rally course constructed in a hallway.

4.Literature Connection: Once families completed the stations, they turned in their reflection sheets and each family was given one STEM-themed children’s book.

5.Dinner: Each family member was given a boxed dinner and encouraged to socialize with other school community members.

Flow of the evening.

Event’s Impact

An important part of the event’s success was the insight of the 125 students and family members who attended. As families moved through the STEM/engineering-based stations, they were asked to provide feedback on each of the stations explored. This feedback included a picture or sentence of what they learned from the station and if they liked the station or not. Some examples of student learning identified on the recording sheets included, “identifying the influence of forces on motion” and “if you twist (the) tube the marble has more velocity.” These pictures and short statements allowed preservice teachers and faculty opportunities to analyze if the intended learning goal and connected NGSS standard of each station aligned with student learning.

University faculty was also able to conclude from these recording sheets that the stations explored by families had a 99% success rate in engaging students and their families. This information was collected from the thumbs up/thumbs down indicator students were asked to circle after the completion of each station. Preservice teachers were also asked to reflect on the evening and the following was gleaned from their responses: Family nights provided a fun way for children and their families to learn together. Preservice teachers were able to build connections with families and observe the various ways families interact. Family nights, like engineering night, became something preservice teachers could reference during lessons to make connections and draw upon previous learning experiences.

  • Family nights provided a fun way for children and their families to learn together.
  • Preservice teachers were able to build connections with families and observe the various ways families interact.
  • Family nights, like engineering night, became something preservice teachers could reference during lessons to make connections and draw upon previous learning experiences.

Next Steps

Engineering kits are now available to all staff in the elementary building to support and enhance current science curriculum and critical thinking activities for all K–6 students. University faculty was available to support elementary school faculty throughout the year for initial execution of activities and materials, as requested.

The success of this event led to further conversations about the need to collaborate for future family nights. In the spring of 2018, the university and building partner executed Family Multicultural Night, which allowed students and their families to explore the diverse cultures represented in their school community.


Research discusses that one of the biggest challenges novice teachers face is learning how to positively interact and involve families in the learning environment. According to Yolanda Abel (2012), “Providing novice teachers or preservice teachers the opportunity to engage in activities in support of family engagement helps them to build the necessary skills and competencies for instilling comparable practices in their teaching repertoire for the long haul” (p. 182). Family engineering events like this can serve as a catalyst for enriching K–6 inquiry in schools and strengthen school–university partnerships. This successful experience has opened doors for future collaborations and opened eyes to the importance of creating authentic experiences for preservice teachers to learn and value the important role families play in students’ academic success.


Abel Y. 2014. Process into products: Supporting teachers to engage parents. Education and Urban Society 46 (2): 181–191.

Ainley M., and Ainley J. 2011. Student engagement with science in early adolescence: The contribution of enjoyment to students’ continuing interest in learning about science. Contemporary Educational Psychology 36 (1): 4–12.

Becker K., and Park K. 2011. Effects of integrative approaches among science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects on students’ learning: A preliminary meta-analysis. Journal of STEM Education: Innovations and Research 12 (5): 23–37. Retrieved from

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. 2013. Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering: 2013. National Science Foundation.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). 2008. NSTA Position Statement: Elementary School Science.

National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). 2009. NSTA Position Statement: Parent Involvement in Science Learning.

Family Engineering. 2017. Bring science & engineering to life! Retrieved October 9, 2017, from

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