Skip to main content

teaching teachers

Migrating Beyond the Classroom

Enriching STEM education with family-based, self-directed learning

Science and Children—September/October 2022 (Volume 60, Issue 1)

By Michelle Monette, Jeffrey Brewster, Nicole Lalier, Joy Pires, and Theodora Pinou

A family learns about the stages of the salmon life cycle.
A family learns about the stages of the salmon life cycle. Photos courtesy of the authors

Studies have shown that both out-of-school science activities and parental/family engagement can enhance student interest and success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) (Mitchell et al. 2008; Mohr-Schroeder et al. 2014; Baran et al. 2019; Ing 2014). Increasing opportunities for the professional development of teachers has also been recommended as a strategy to improve STEM education (Tai et al. 2006). In this article, we describe a model for a structured Family Science Night that we believe is useful for educators interested in engaging students and their families in STEM beyond the classroom. This model was designed in collaboration with university professors and public school teachers and aligns with elementary life sciences NGSS standards. This experience took place in the evening on a university campus and combined interactive technology with self-directed, hands-on activities that engaged students in the design and use of models, data analysis, and higher-order thinking. The objectives of our event were to encourage STEM discoveries through conversations between students and families, to give students and families the opportunity to interact with expert scientists, and to demystify the university by making it accessible to students and families. Family Science Night also provides a model for increasing teacher content knowledge by integrating informal science learning opportunities into teacher professional development.

Planning and Implementation

The collaboration between university and local public school partners was key to designing an event that served to enrich the in-school STEM curriculum. To begin, university scientists met with local school district administrators to define the enrichment content, to determine the target audience, and to identify teachers willing to participate. Although recruitment for our event targeted middle school students and their families, the content to be covered included animal life cycles, internal/external structures of animals, and sensory perception, all of which align best with NGSS standards for grades 3–4. We also expected the audience on the night of the event to include many younger siblings; therefore, we believe alignment with elementary-level standards was appropriate.

Next, expert scientists met with the teachers to discuss the size, structure, and timing of the event, and to design the evening’s activities. The expert scientists provided discipline-specific content and training for the activities, whereas the teachers aligned the activities to the local curriculum and NGSS standards.

We focused our event on the complex lifecycle of anadromous (or migratory) fishes, the research expertise of one of the university scientists. Specifically, the theme of Family Science Night was Atlantic salmon, a species of local and national management, conservation, and economic concern. We chose Atlantic salmon for several reasons: (1) it is an example of a fish that utilizes multiple habitats (streams, rivers, and estuaries) in the area and one that we thought many families would have familiarity with, (2) it is an animal exhibiting a unique and complicated lifecycle, and (3) it is the research expertise of one of the university scientists. This model can be adapted for other fishes or animals with unique lifecycles, making it broadly applicable. Five activities were originally designed or adapted from preexisting resources (see Online Resources) and were aligned with elementary life science NGSS standards (Table 1). These activities provided opportunities for students and families to explore how: (1) fish have both internal and external structures that serve various functions, (2) fish have unique life cycles with life stages requiring different habitats, (3) fish have developed specific traits for survival in different environments, and (4) fish use chemical perception to guide migratory behavior.

Next, we advertised our event by engaging our partnering district administrators who distributed fliers at local schools and by advertising our event on our university website and in the local community newspaper. We specifically cast a wide advertising net to bring together students and families from different towns and school systems from within our state to increase diversity. Our event succeeded at attracting ~90 participants, the majority of which were middle school students and their families, which often included younger siblings.

A few months prior to the event, the university scientists reserved university space (a large lecture hall, a computer lab, and two laboratory classrooms) and ordered all necessary supplies. All activities were designed to be cost effective, so only a limited number of supplies were purchased. Undergraduate students were recruited and trained to assist with the implementation of Family Science Night. A training session was held for the teachers and the undergraduate students which involved the setup, running, and cleanup of all five activities, serving as a “dry run” for the real event. If undergraduate students are not available, we suggest that parents or other teachers with an interest in this topic be recruited as volunteers.

Interactive Technology

On the night of the event, students, families, teachers, university students, and faculty gathered in a large lecture hall on our university campus. Unlike many traditional Family Science Nights, which are held in school gyms or cafeterias, our event was held on a university campus to make the university more approachable and inclusive. To accommodate non-English speaking families, a translator was present for the entire event. The event kicked off with the expert scientist welcoming students and their families to campus, introducing the evening’s staff and schedule, describing the evening’s theme, and sharing their research expertise (Atlantic salmon)! During this introduction, the undergraduate students handed out small handheld clickers to each student. Students then used their clickers to answer five multiple-choice questions to test their preexisting knowledge of salmon. Students had 30 seconds to discuss the best answer with their families and to submit their answer electronically using their response card. We used clickers from Turning Technologies; however, smartphones and free online game-based or classroom response systems such as Kahoot, Quizizz, and Poll Everyone can be used for this part of the event.

Self-Directed Hands-On Activities

At the conclusion of the opening session, students were divided into three groups (about 10 students and two family members each) and each group was assigned to a teacher. Student/family groups were led by their teacher to one of the three university classrooms equipped with hands-on learning activities. Upon entering each classroom, students were greeted by a university student or faculty and were handed an activity packet. (We have included a blank activity packet online that describes all five activities; see Supplemental Resources). Students and families then spent about 30 minutes working together to complete the activities (Figure 1). During this time, family members directed their children through the activities and kept them on track; therefore, the role of the teacher was only to answer questions and to facilitate discussions. Although learning was self-guided, the teachers reported that they used the activity packets to monitor progress and assess understanding. The university student or faculty member in the room was available to answer questions while also keeping track of the time and coordinating with staff in other rooms. Upon completion of the room’s activities, students/family groups were led by their teacher to the next classroom until all three classrooms were visited.

Figure 1

Three activities from Family Science Night.

Computer Lab (Virtual Dissection and Stream Builder Model): Students and families played computer games from the website: Salmonids: In Troubled Waters ( First, students and families played games to learn about the external and internal features of fish and what functions they serve for survival. Next, they played games to learn about the ideal habitat for the reproduction and early development of salmon. Empowered with new knowledge of what makes an ideal habitat for young salmon, students and families played the “Stream Builder” game during which they used a computer model to design their own salmon stream. To do this, they first chose settings for several parameters (such as water temperature, stream depth, vegetation), and then lay eggs in their stream to see how many eggs survived. If none or few of the eggs survived, the students revised their model to improve the success of their stream. This encouraged friendly competition between student/family groups, as each group tried to design a stream in which the highest number of salmon eggs survived!

Lab Classroom #1 (Salmon Life Cycle and Gummy Bear Osmosis): Students read a short text about salmon and constructed a model of the salmon life cycle by placing laminated cards with names, pictures, and descriptions of the six life stages (eggs, alevin, fry, parr, smolts, adults) in the correct location on a large poster board. After constructing their life cycle models, students and families recorded their predictions about which life stages are most affected by dams, pollution, overfishing, and habitat destruction in their activity packets. In this classroom, students and families also used a gummy bear experiment to model what happens to a salmon when it migrates from freshwater to saltwater. Students and families measured the weights of gummy bears in three conditions: (1) gummy bears in an empty jar (control), (2) gummy bears soaking in freshwater (a salmon in freshwater), and (3) gummy bears soaking in saltwater (a salmon in saltwater). They then used plastic spoons to scoop out gummy bears and to place them on small battery-powered, electronic scales. They recorded the weights of three gummy bears per group (control, freshwater, saltwater), and calculated the mean weight in grams for each group. Students and families used their data to support an explanation about what role osmosis is playing when a salmon migrates from the river (freshwater) to the ocean (saltwater) and recorded their thoughts and ideas in their activity packet. As an extension, students were asked to think about what traits the salmon has developed for survival in these two very different environments.

Lab Classroom #2 (Chemical Cues): Students and families used a model to examine how adult salmon use chemical cues from their environment to guide upstream migration. In this model, students took on the role of an adult salmon migrating upriver to the stream in which it was born (its natal stream), and essential oils were used to simulate the chemical scents of different streams. Students and families picked one of six jars labeled A–F. They then opened the jars, smelled inside, and memorized the chemical scents of their natal stream. Jars with different scents were achieved by placing a cotton ball soaked with 1 of 6 essential oils (lavender, orange, lemon, eucalyptus, tea tree, and peppermint) into each jar. After memorizing the scent of their natal stream, students and families moved to the opposite side of the table where there was a different set of jars labeled with the names of locally relevant salmon rivers. Students opened these the jars one by one to smell the scent until they recognized the scent of their natal stream. Students and families then had to find their scent in a third set of jars containing multiple cotton balls with “interfering” scents and were challenged to think about how these “interfering” scents could be like chemical pollutants affecting the ability of salmon to find their natal streams.

Parent and child explore osmosis with gummy bears.
Parent and child explore osmosis with gummy bears.

At the conclusion of the self-directed, hands-on part of this event, student/family groups were led by their assigned teacher back to the large lecture hall. Students then used their clickers to answer the same five multiple-choice questions (post-assessment) administered during the opening session.


Although it is often difficult to gauge learning in informal, out-of-school environments, we believe that it is important to assess the impact of these experiences on student/parental content gains and STEM engagement. Students were asked five multiple-choice questions before and after completion of the self-directed learning activities. We observed that the students really enjoyed using the clickers, so we believe that this was a fun way to conduct a formalized assessment of acquired knowledge with a large audience. Student and family understanding of salmon anatomy increased when it came to identifying external features (50% pre to 85% post, 39% pre to 86% post). They also improved in their understanding of the salmon life cycle (33% pre to 70% post) and life-stage adaptations (64% pre to 86% post). Students and families were also better at identifying the habitat requirements of salmon (36% pre to 86% post). At the end of the evening, we collected the activity packets to gauge how successful students and families were at completing the activities and at answering the extension questions. Since the packets included questions for each activity, we were able to assess learning for each activity individually. One of our goals when offering this event again will be to revise the gummy bear experiment extension questions, as it was observed that these were often left blank. Finally, to gauge the impact of Family Science Night, participating family members were asked to provide an anonymous written reflection on the experience by answering the question, “Please tell us what you appreciated most during this experience?” Some family members commented that they learned too, and several appreciated the hands-on nature of the experience.


This article presents a model for a structured Family Science Night that supports the elementary life science curriculum. Through this informal experience, students and their families had the chance to visit a university, work together at an individualized pace to complete self-directed STEM activities, and engage in dialogue about science with university students and faculty. We learned that our model was successful at: (1) creating sustainable partnerships between university faculty and school teachers, (2) integrating informal science learning opportunities into impactful teacher professional development, (3) increasing knowledge of complex animal lifecycles, and (4) providing urban families access and opportunity to STEM experts that otherwise would not be possible. Most important, this last outcome is related to the mission of increasing minority and underserved STEM engagement.

We encourage school districts to work closely with their local state universities, specifically with the STEM departments, as these experts can enrich programming and build outreach from their research programs. Too often school districts limit their university interaction to only the education departments that participate in teacher preparation. However, our model highlights the value that content experts can provide to outreach programming, especially family engagement. In addition, our Family Science Night model supports in-classroom gains because it reinforces classroom expectations for high performance as well as providing non-threatening higher order thinking learning experiences. We welcome feedback from school districts that implement our model, and look forward to hearing from other educators and content experts if this collaborative, out-of-school family learning model generated STEM enthusiasm for young students, and encouraged these students to envision college as part of their future.

Online Resources

Alaska Salmon in the Classroom Curriculum:

Bring Back the Salmon:

NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region Salmon Activities:

Salmonids: In Troubled Waters:


Funding for this project was provided by NOAA B Wet award number NA16NMF0080003 to T. Pinou.

Michelle Y. Monette ( is an associate professor in the department of biology at Western Connecticut State University, Jeffrey Brewster is a STEM teacher at Broadview Middle School, Nicole Lalier is a sixth-grade science teacher at Broadview Middle School, Joy Pires is a seventh-grade science teacher at Broadview Middle School, and Theodora Pinou is a professor in the department of biology at Western Connecticut State University, all in Danbury, Connecticut.


Baran, E., B. Canbazoglu, C. Mesutoglu, and C. Ocak. 2019. The impact of an out-of-school STEM education program on students’ attitudes toward STEM and STEM careers. School Science and Mathematics 119 (4): 223–235.

Ing, M. 2014. Can parents influence children’s mathematics achievement and persistence in STEM careers? Journal of Career Development 41 (2): 87–103.

Mitchell, S., E. Drobnes, M. Sol Colina-Trujillo, and J. Noel-Storr. 2008. NASA family science night: Changing perceptions one family at a time. Advances in Space Research 42 (11): 1844–1847.

Mohr-Schroeder, M.J., et al. 2014. Developing middle school students’ interests in STEM via summer learning experiences: See blue STEM camp. School Science and Mathematics 114 (6): 291–301.

Tai, R., C. Liu, A. Maltese, and X. Fan. 2006. Planning early for careers in science. Science 312: 1143.

Biology Interdisciplinary Life Science Teacher Preparation

Asset 2