By Kimberly Lott, Brenda Bennett, and Sara Urbanek-Carney
Many students enter our classrooms with a variety of science experiences that have been cultivated within their families. Trips to the zoo, visits to national parks, exploring a neighborhood park, fishing, and camping are all activities that offer children opportunities to explore the scientific world around them. Experiences such as these home-initiated engagements with science provide students with a foundation of scientific understanding that teachers can then draw upon during in-school science lessons. However, some children will not have these opportunities without suggestions and ideas from outside the family.
As the vast amount of learning and development occur within a child’s home and school environments (Galindo and Sheldon 2012), increased attention is being given to fortify school-family connections (Mapp and Kuttner 2013). As the school populace transitions to a more diverse demographic, attending to the building of strong school-family partnerships shows potential for increasing student achievement—even among more marginalized communities (Sibley and Dearing 2014). In fact, research suggests that when parents are actively involved, students can achieve higher success, regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnic/racial background, or level of parental education (Pate and Andrews 2006).
Although the question remains how to best engage parents in their children’s science education, particularly when faced with common barriers such as low socioeconomic status, language, and so on, a growing body of research suggests that some of the greatest student achievement may come by coordinating efforts between at-school and at-home learning (Thompson, Gillis, Fairman, and Mason 2014). Through careful planning and sensitivity to the unique circumstances of the families being served, teachers can facilitate simple, at-home enrichment experiences that engage all students and parents in rich science learning (Thompson, Gillis, Fairman, and Mason 2014), including those who are economically or educationally disadvantaged (Sheldon and Epstein 2005).
This article illustrates several types of at-home science experiences that could be incorporated during grades K–2 to provide enriching science experiences that are motivating for students without requiring exhaustive work and preparation. These activities are designed to augment science interest and enthusiasm of students in the classroom and then facilitate further engagement at home. The suggested activities vary in degree of teacher involvement and planning; therefore, teachers can pick activities that best fit their needs and school community. While examples are given of how these might be related to specific content aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013), they could easily be modified to other content areas. It is acknowledged that students may live in diverse households and not just with their parent(s), so whenever the term parent(s) is used in this article, it is meant as a generic term for any adult caregiver that is found within a student’s home.
At the beginning of the school year, teachers can help parents recognize the value of science education and their important roles in helping students achieve by sharing the NSTA position paper, the Benefits of Parental Involvement in Science () during back to school night. Teachers can further generate parental interest in engaging in collaborative in-school/at-home science learning by providing a preview of the types of in-school and at-home activities students will be doing throughout the year. To maintain momentum, teachers can also send monthly “Science Newsletters” outlining the topic(s) of science study in class that month and providing complimentary at-home activities.
Students in K–2 embrace opportunities to celebrate their birthdays with peers. To pivot off this, an activity suggestion is to have students set up and perform a favorite science experiment or investigation with their classmates on their birthday. This can be anything that interests the student; therefore, it could be unrelated to the science topic they are currently studying in class. For students whose birthdays fall in the summer, teachers can schedule a “surprise” birthday at some point within the school calendar year. In the monthly newsletter, teachers can highlight students who will be celebrating their birthday (or surprise birthday) that month and provide resources to parents for finding simple science experiments to share (For example: http://www.sciencekids.co.nz/experiments.html). If families are unwilling or unable to find a science experiment, teachers could help support the student so no one is left out.
A common practice when picking children up from school is for parents to ask their children, “How was your day?” This provides a prime opportunity for students, who are often excited about the science experiments they are doing in school to respond, “We did this cool thing in science, and I want to show it to you when we get home!” For activities requiring only common materials available at home, send “Try it at Home” instructions. These instructions include materials needed, directions, questions to consider, any safety concerns that might need to be considered, and an explanation of how parents can monitor their child’s understanding (see Figure 1 for an example). For school communities where common materials may be scarce, the teacher can provide materials for students, choose experiments that require no materials, or give suggestions of substitute materials that could be used.
Encourage at-home science engagement by setting aside some time in the following days or week to have students share science experiences they have gone home to do with their parents and families. Ask, “Did it happen the same at home as at school? Why or why not? What did this experiment make you wonder or what questions did you have after completing the experiment? What kind of experiment could you do next to help answer your questions?” Early elementary students feel validated when given opportunities to contribute to discussions. Often, as peers witness the satisfaction of classmates who have had an opportunity to be in the spotlight, this encourages participation of others. Consequently, it is likely that students who did not engage in “Try it at Home” activities initially may be more apt to do so in the future.
For each unit of study, issue a science bag to each student. In each resealable plastic bag, provide a book relating to the topic currently being investigated in class. Alternatively, give instructions for accessing a book from an online resource, such as Epic! (), or a link to an instructional video. Include instructions to perform an at-home experiment (see Table 1 for examples) and materials, if applicable. For each experiment, students will draw or write about their results (with parental help for younger students) and also complete a bubble map (see NSTA Connection), giving five “Fun Facts” that they learned from the book.
|Table 1. Examples of Take Home Science bags.|
Students will have one week to complete their at-home experiment. When they have completed it, compile the classroom findings and guide class discussion through questioning. For example, questions could include, “Did everyone get the same results?” “Why might the results be different?” This is a great opportunity to discuss with students that scientific knowledge is gained through gathering information, reasoning, and communicating findings just as they have done in conducting the experiment at home, sharing their findings with the class, and making claims based on those findings. Compile a class “Fun Facts” bubble sheet to allow students to share what they learned from the book, which allows for deeper learning from the text.
One of the easiest ways to reinforce science concepts in school is to encourage students to look for science in their everyday lives. During a science unit, share a “Where is the science in my home?” handout (see Figure 2 for an example). By involving parents in this “science scavenger hunt,” students get the opportunity to explain to their parents what they are learning in science, and then together they can explore the science in their everyday lives (see Table 2 for examples). Moreover, this activity helps students gather additional evidence to support claims they are making during in-class science explorations. This is an ideal activity for school communities where common household materials may be scarce or adult participation is limited, as it still allows for the student to participate with their classmates.
|Table 2. Examples of Science In My Home prompts.|
Periodically during the year, give students instructions for a STEM project to complete at home (See Table 3 for examples). These can be made from everyday objects found around the house and simple crafting supplies. Through these projects, students use their creativity to design, test, and improve their project. Parents are given guiding questions to help students through this process: What purpose does your project have, or what could your project be used for? What materials do you need? How can you test it to make sure it works? What can you do to improve your project? After a month of working on their projects, students bring them to school to present to the class.
|Table 3. Examples of STEM Projects at Home.|
As teachers, we often encourage students to notice science patterns over time or across various contexts and locations. By including at-home data collection, we can expand the classroom or school grounds to include larger areas and extended time periods. Make a classroom rain gauge to measure rainfall at school and send home instructions for students to make and collect data at home (). In a similar fashion, make a classroom sundial to study changes in the position of the Sun and send home instructions for students to make these same observations at home (). For communities where adult participation may be scarce, students could make the data collection devices at school and use the device at home to collect data. Periodically throughout the classroom observation period, facilitate discussions with students about how the data collected at school compares to their data collected at home and any inaccuracies or frustrations that might arise.
Combine data collected during school with data collected at home. For example, while studying the changes in the appearance of the Moon, students create journals to collect and analyze data where some of the entries will be done at school (during phases seen during the day) and other entries completed at home (during phases seen at night). At the end of the lunar cycle, students can analyze both their in-school and at-home data to look for the overall pattern of the observable changes to the Moon.
For younger elementary students, it is often helpful for them to experience multiple examples of a particular phenomenon to encourage them to see that these phenomena are not just observed with objects during class experiences.
Students bring pictures from home of themselves with their families to study inheritance and variation. By examining family photos, the students can start to notice patterns of how family members often have similar characteristics. For students that are adopted or not living with their biological family, teachers can have them focus on other traits like sense of humor, love of certain foods, hobbies, and so on. Or even survey members of the their household to collect data about favorite foods, musical artists, or tv shows to compare themselves to, thus allowing all children to participate. Even though these are not technically inherited traits, this still affords students an opportunity to notice patterns of similarities and differences between themselves and others in their home. Last, students can bring in rocks from their homes and investigate their properties, or bring in photos of their households at a body of water and sort them according to types of water as a culminating activity.
The activities listed above provide just a few examples of how teachers can encourage at-home experiences that reinforce science content and practices students are learning at school. The activities vary in the amount of resources needed and parental involvement required to complete, so teachers can pick and choose which activities would be the most appropriate for their school or student community. Teachers can choose whether these activities are a requirement or optional; however, the ultimate goal is to provide opportunities for all students to engage in at-home science experiences multiple times over the course of the school year, even if it is only one type of at-home activity.
It is important to recognize that family dynamics vary across households; consequently, all students may not have a parent or adult helper that is able to engage with them. This underscores the importance of fostering relationships with students and their families and developing a comprehensive understanding of their unique situations and needs. If particular students are not engaging at home on a regular basis, it would be beneficial to visit with the child and parent or guardian individually to identify areas of particular interest or ability and then solicit their input in designing experiments that can be done at home. By gaining an understanding of at-home circumstances, we can identify additional resources that can be made available to families. No child should be left out from participating due to potential barriers that exist at home.
In recent months, blended learning options have garnered increased attention. In its simplest form, blended learning offers instructional delivery and learning opportunities through a combination of digital and physical modes of learning. This can be particularly valuable in sustaining learning momentum and engagement at times when students are unable to by physically present at school due to illness, travel, and even other circumstances such as the worldwide pandemic when conditions necessitated remote learning.
While it is still critical to be cognizant of varied resources that students have available to them, there are ways of managing and even inspiring at-home science experiences. For example, teachers can pose an inquiry question at the beginning of the week and provide a list of common household items or items that can be found easily in nature in one’s backyard or neighborhood to conduct a simple investigation. Varied levels of scaffolding could then be offered to students to guide inquiry experiences, such as meeting through virtual platforms to engage students in discussions that include guiding questions posed by the teacher and support provided to help students make claims, back their claims with evidence, and provide scientific reasoning for their explanations. Virtual platforms also offer the opportunity for students to take pictures or video and share their investigations with the teacher or peers. Additionally, there are online software programs that make it possible for students to use the cloud to contribute to small-group or whole-class development of a presentation, graph, or manuscript. Even without complex computers or digital devices, many phone apps facilitate opportunities for students to connect with teachers and peers to engage in unified science learning opportunities, thus many of the activities shared in this article could be engaged in and shared through virtual means that bridge at-home and in-school science learning.
Download the 5 Fun Facts Bubble Map and other handouts at https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-and-children.
Kimberly Lott (email@example.com) is an associate professor of science education, and Brenda Bennett is a doctoral student of science education, both at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. Sara Urbanek-Carney is a first-grade teacher at Edith Bowen Laboratory School in Logan.
Galindo C., and Sheldon S.B.. 2012. School and home connections and children’s kindergarten achievement gains: The mediating role of family involvement. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 27 (1): 90–103.
Mapp K.L., and Kuttner P.J.. 2013. Partners in education: A dual capacity-building framework for family-school partnerships. Austin, TX: SEDL.
NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Pate P.E., and Andrews P.G.. 2006. Research summary: Parent involvement. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association (NMSA). Available online at
Sheldon S.B., and Epstein J.L.. 2005. Involvement counts: Family and community partnerships and mathematics achievement. The Journal of Educational Research 98 (4): 196–207.
Sibley E., and Dearing E.. 2014. Family educational involvement and child achievement in early elementary school for American-born and immigrant families. Psychology in the Schools 51 (8): 814–831.
Thompson K.M., Gillis T.J., Fairman J., and Mason C.A.. 2014. Effective Strategies for Engaging Parents in Students’ Learning to Support Achievement. Orono, ME: Maine Education Policy Research Institute.