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Building a Science Community

Family Science Programs

Science Scope—March/April 2021 (Volume 44, Issue 4)

By Megan Ennes and M. Gail Jones

Building a Science Community

A participant releasing a blue jay during a bird banding event. Photo courtesy of the author.


It is important to engage all families in out-of-school science experiences as studies have shown that children develop lifelong interests in science by exploring science with family members (Corin et al. 2018; Jones, Taylor, and Forrester 2011). In this article, we share our experience in developing a family science program for underrepresented youth. Our goal was to get students excited about science by involving the whole family in fun and motivating science experiences. Family programs can be particularly beneficial for supporting students who are underrepresented in science (Perera 2014). We know from research that parents of underserved youth think it is important for their children to visit museums and participate in informal science programs that allow their children to have hands-on, real-world experiences (Simpson and Parsons 2009), but they may not always feel comfortable in museums or science centers. With a little support and thoughtful planning, all families can be made to feel welcome and valued in these spaces.

To support out-of-school learning and to increase family science engagement, we developed a yearlong, once-a-month family science program for students from underrepresented communities. This program was a partnership between North Carolina State University and three museums: the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Marbles Kids Museum, and Moorhead Planetarium and Science Center. As researchers and project managers, our role was to assist with recruiting families, facilitate collaboration between the museums, ensure that the museums had the resources they needed to run the program, and collect data on the efficacy and impacts of the program. We also attended the majority of the program events to engage with the families and assist the museum staff as needed.

Developing the program

The first step in creating this program was to develop partnerships with local science museums in our area (see Figure 1). We reached out to three informal science centers to identify whether they would be interested in helping us develop a program to help support student science interest and career aspirations. All three museums agreed to participate and serve families in their local area. Each museum decided to develop a monthly program around a specific theme, including life sciences, engineering, and physical sciences. Each museum recruited 20 families to participate in the program at their facility through established partnerships with Title I schools and afterschool programs. The museums sent flyers in English and Spanish to the afterschool programs and Title I schools inviting students to apply. Each museum had its own application process for selecting students who were interested in science but may not have the resources to engage in STEM programs. Most families attended the entire year.

Figure 1
FIGURE 1: Best practices in developing a family science program.

Best practices in developing a family science program.

Museums and other informal science centers often have special community events like Family Science Olympiad Day or Engineering Day. Our programs included annual events being held at our partner museums such as Astronomy Days, Bugfest, and the Science Festival. The family programs took place during these special museum events and had themes that matched the special events. Although these were public events, our families also had a private program behind the scenes that was closed to the general public during the events.

We were fortunate to have a wide range of museums to work with, but not every school system may be located near a museum. However, there may be other types of organizations in your area that you can partner with. Schools in rural areas may want to reach out to their local cooperative extension or 4-H programs. Additionally, schools may be able to partner with their local public libraries, many of which now have science programs or maker spaces. State park systems may also have opportunities to engage in science programs or offer spaces where families can meet. Additionally, family science programs can be hosted at the school itself if you are not able to locate an external partner.

Once you have a partner, work with their education staff to leverage programs they may already be offering at their institution. This will decrease the amount of work that you and the community partner have to do to create the program. In our program, each museum designed their monthly programs based on their individual theme. They identified family-friendly activities that matched the theme, community scientists engaged in the work, and take-home activities for the families to learn more about each topic. As researchers, our role was to support the museums in conducting research and evaluation about the individual events and the overall family program. We also planned an end-of-the-year graduation ceremony at our university. This event brought the families from all three museums together to engage in family science activities, to meet students from their community enrolled in science or engineering programs at the university, and to learn more about resources related to science camps and college tracks.

Figure 2

A family designing “Doodle Bots” during a family event on robotics. Photo courtesy the authors.

Safety note: Use of sharps requires eye protection—safety glasses with side shields or safety goggles—for set-up, hands-on and take down components of this activity.


Program implementation

The programs were offered on either Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon and ran about three hours. Both indoor and outdoor programs were offered. Program examples include building Rube Goldberg machines during an engineering day and bird banding events where families helped tag and release birds with researchers. For outdoor programs, we found it important to convey information about appropriate outerwear for the participants. During our first outdoor programs, we were not clear about what types of clothing should be worn (e.g., tennis shoes, jackets), and many families were unprepared. After that event, our partners started bringing additional outerwear for families to borrow. Make sure any activities you plan meet the safety standards set out by NSTA (see Online Resources); provide proper protective equipment such as goggles or gloves for activities that might pose a hazard. Our families signed consent forms to participate in the museum program. You may want to have families sign waivers or permission slips to participate in your program and make it clear to parents that they are your partner in ensuring safety.

To help the museums plan for the programs, each family was asked to register ahead of time. Some museums used registration systems they already had in place, whereas others asked for emails or texts concerning how many adults and children to expect. There was no limit to the number of people families could bring. Each family was able to bring anyone they considered part of their family. We welcomed everyone, including grandparents, aunts and uncles, community mentors, even newborns. While the students were required to bring an adult with them to each program, it did not have to be the same adult each time. This allows for flexibility for families who have changing work schedules, custody considerations, and other concerns that might affect the adult’s ability to participate in the program each time. If possible, you should offer a snack or food that can offset any food security issues associated with attending the program. Our meals were paid for by a National Science Foundation Grant that funded the program.

During family programs, it is important to provide families with an opportunity to develop a sense of community. This helps families who may not often visit these types of settings feel more comfortable. As the families attended the program all year long, we found many of them built close relationships that extended beyond our program.

During your family program, structure the activities so families can work together as they explore different aspects of science. Selecting collaborative, noncompetitive activities that require a wide range of abilities helps to keep participants of all ages engaged. For example, one of our museums had a program on fossils. During this event, each family was given a paper plate with material to dig through to find fossilized shark’s teeth. The families then worked together to try to identify the types of teeth they found on their plate. Other examples of family science activities can be found in Table 1.

These family programs are also a wonderful opportunity to invite local scientists to come and talk about work being done in the community. They can speak with students about the types of careers that can be found in the community and the type of education needed to pursue those careers. We had an array of community scientists and engineers come to our program including an astronaut, an entomologist, a soil and water scientist, a park ranger, and an ornithologist. These community scientists were identified by the museums and offered their time for free as part of their community outreach and service. For schools in areas that may not have access to a university or community scientists, it may be possible to leverage other programs like “Skype a Scientist” to engage your families with science professionals.

One difficulty we found during our family activities was that at times, parents stood back and let the child do the activity on their own or took over the activity. This may be because the parents thought the activity was designed for the children, and they stood back to watch. We recommend finding ways to help parents see themselves as partners in the learning activities. This may be in the form of parent questioning guides that give parents information on the topic/activity and questions they can ask their child to increase conversation.

After each program, families were invited to continue their day by visiting the science center where the event took place. Often this meant joining the major event happening that day, such as a Future Me Fair (careers in science), or exploring the museum to learn more about the day’s topic. Before the parents left our group space, we made sure to give them resources related to the day’s activities so they could continue the science conversations at home. We learned that when sending home materials, parents needed explicit information about what to do with them. Taking parents aside at the end of the program and providing an explanation about the materials you are sending home, or including a parent guide along with the materials, will help ensure their use. We also recommend sending home additional questioning guides that will help parents connect the information they learned that day to their everyday life. This will help encourage family discussion beyond the program and hopefully help increase families’ interest in engaging in science for fun. See Table 2 for examples of take-home activities for families to engage in together.

Table 1: Examples of family activities for family science programs (see Online Resources).



A Wearable Water Filter

Families work together to create a water filter out of everyday items.

Power Plants: Algal Biofuels

Families collect algae and work together to identify the types of algae they found. Then they learn how algae can be used as fuel.

Interactive Interdependence

Families can work together to learn how organisms are connected in an ecosystem.

Rock Cycle Journey

Families journey through the rock cycle and learn more about what happens to rocks.

Pollution Patrol

Families work together to design and build air pollution detectors from household items.

Physics of Roller Coasters

Families work together to build roller coasters.

Table 2: Examples of take-home activities for parents (see Online Resources).



Nature Journals

Families start a nature journal.

Seasons Interactive

Families can explore the location of the sun over the course of the year.

Water Is Wonderful

Families investigate where their water comes from and how to reduce water consumption.

Magnetic Slime

Families can work together to make magnetic slime. By making multiple types of slime, they can analyze differences in results.

Evaluating the program

There are several options for learning more about how your families are engaging in the program. You can have the families develop a family science notebook. If you supply families with a science notebook at the first event, or ask them to bring one, they can document their experiences throughout the year. Using the notebook, parents and children can share the information they learn at the program, as well as note any questions they have and examples of the types of conversations they’re having at home. Families can also work together to draw images and make observations. Younger siblings can help with the drawings, while parents and older siblings can write about the activities.

One of our museums developed a GroupMe chat for their families. This is a text-messaging service that allows private chatting for small groups. GroupMe allows the educator and families to maintain their privacy by not sharing telephone numbers and also allows educators to silence the group when necessary so that they do not receive constant messages. Through the GroupMe, students and parents shared images of themselves engaging in science during and outside of the program. This included “selfie with a scientist” photos at a large event at their museum, images of their take-home activity in their backyard, or pictures of a bug they found and wanted to share with the group. This type of digital engagement allows families to stay connected between programs and helps build a rapport with the educators.

We also developed a survey that was given out at the first and last events. The student survey provides information on how the students’ science self-efficacy, experiences, future beliefs about science, and family beliefs about science change over the course of the program. We found that the program increased students’ science experiences outside of school, as well as their levels of science-self efficacy. Families in our program reported that they spent more time talking about and engaging in science together after participating.

Encouraging parents to engage in science learning with their children is an important step in building the science interests and career aspirations of students. Many students begin losing interest in science in middle school (Maltese, Melki, and Wiebke 2014), and building a supportive community where families engage in science together may help offset that loss of interest. Collaborating with local informal science centers or other community groups allows teachers to bridge classroom learning and out-of-school learning for their students. We hope that you will take our experiences and use them to develop your own program to help support your students’ science interests and career goals.


This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. 1614468 and DGE-1252376. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Online Resources


10 Tips to Support Children’s Science Learning—

A Wearable Water Filter in “Discovery Engineering in Physical Sciences: Case Studies for Grades 6–12”—

Cooperative Extension System—

Discovery Engineering Series from NSTA—

Family Nature Journal—

Fossil Kits by mail—


How Big Was Megalodon—

Interactive Interdependence—

Magnetic Slime—

Nature Journals—

NextGen Scientist Survey—

NSTA Safety Standards—

Physics of Roller Coasters—

Pollution Patrol—

Power Plants: Algal Biofules in “Discovery Engineering in Biology: Case Studies for Grades 6–12—

Rock Cycle Journey—

Seasons Interactive—

Skype a Scientist—

Track the Sun—

Water Is Wonderful—

Why Do Pine Cones Open and Close—

Megan Ennes ( is an assistant professor of museum education in the Department of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville. M. Gail Jones is a professor of science education in the Department of Math, Science, and Technology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.


Corin, E.N., M.G. Jones, T. Andre, and G.M. Childers. 2018. Characteristics of lifelong science learners: An investigation of STEM hobbyists. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 8 (1): 53–75.

Jones, G., A. Taylor, and J.H. Forrester. 2011. Developing a scientist: A retrospective look. International Journal of Science Education 33 (12) 1653–1673.

Maltese, A.V., C.S. Melki, and H.L. Wiebke. 2014. The nature of experiences responsible for the generation and maintenance of interest in STEM. Science Education 98 (6): 937–962.

Perera, L.D.H. 2014. Parents’ attitudes towards science and their children’s science achievement. International Journal of Science Education 36 (18): 3021–3041.

Simpson, J.S., and E.C. Parsons. 2009. African American perspectives and informal science educational experiences. Science Education 93 (2): 293–321.

Careers General Science Inclusion STEM Teaching Strategies Middle School Informal Education

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