Launch a Balloon Rocket: When you blow up a balloon, you force extra air into it, creating higher air pressure inside the balloon than outside of it. If you allow the air to exit through only one small hole, the force will be strong enough to propel the lightweight balloon in the opposite direction. Credit: Christine Kaelin

I’ve been meaning to tell you all about a wonderful experience that we at Scientific American had last week participating in our First Family Science Night. With the New York Academy of Sciences and the Children’s Aid Society–and an army of wonderful science grad students–we enjoyed a series of our Bring Science Home activities with dozens of children and their families at the Frederick Douglass Center in Manhattan.

The idea of Bring Science Home, which I developed after realizing that my own daughters really enjoyed exploring their questions about the world with me through such activities, is to give parents, kids and teachers a resource for simple, fun explorations of concepts–which you can usually do in under an hour with things you probably have around the house.

Kids and their parents at Family Science Night learned first hand:
how different bird beaks are adaptive for different types of foods;
how to get iron out of your breakfast cereal;
how craters form;
how to create sticky, icky–fun–oobleck;
how to launch a balloon rocket;
how yeast breathes;
how to raise their heart rates;
and more!

Maybe you don’t live in New York and you’re wondering: How can I Bring Science Home for my own family or school?

Meghan Groome of the New York Academy of Sciences also wrote about Family Science Night, which she said I could share with you:

I’m so excited for our first ever Family Science Night with the Children’s Aid Society and Scientific American but it got me thinking, how is doing science with a family different than doing science with an individual child or class?

Working with a family can be very different than working with a class of children or an individual child. In addition to the different ages of the participants, the participants have varying degrees of comfort and knowledge of science. In my book, there are a few key steps to a successful family interaction.

Yeast Alive! Watch Yeast Live and Breathe: Yeast releases carbon dioxide when it is active. Yeast are so small you can't see individual ones very well. So how can you tell if they are alive or not? You can enlist a whole bunch of them to blow up a balloon for you! Credit: Christine Kaelin

Engage the Whole Group
When you look at your activity, break it down into tasks that you can assign different family members and then make sure everyone has a specific task or role. Even if you just have one science task, such as looking through a microscope, you can assign one person to take a picture, another to interview the person about what their seeing, and then you can have a younger sibling draw what is happening.

Ideally, you’d have a science or observation task for everyone but never underestimate the value of having someone take or make pictures!

You may find that parents are hesitant to get involved or claim not to know any science. Think about your activity and suggest a way for them to participate that mimics an activity they may already feel comfortable with such as organizing and recording the data, being in charge of the tools, or helping a child with a hands- on task. The whole point of Family Science is to make parents feel comfortable and see how these activities are similar to what they already do.

If there is a younger sibling, have crayons and paper at the ready to give so that they can color off to the side. Engaging a younger sibling will allow the parents to focus on the older child and the activity at hand.

Don’t Alienate Anyone
Parents and caregivers often pass along factually incorrect information and it can put you in a very awkward situation. I used to volunteer at the zoo and it was always amazing to hear parents answer the question “What are they doing?” The answer may have actually been “Eating their own poop” but parents usually said something like “Look over there” or “Eating dog food”.

It’s up to you whether you want to correct a parent but think long and hard about if you want to try. A simple “That’s an interesting take on it” is okay but I recommend refocusing them by asking them to make an observation about the task or diplomatically adding your own spin on things.

I am very comfortable correcting a child and I usually start it with “I can see how you might think that...” or asking them where they got that information.

Let the Kids Shine
Doing science with kids often flips the family dynamic since the kids often hold more knowledge on a subject than their parents. Let the kids shine and demonstrate how much they know!

Meghan Groome, Director of K12 Education and Science & the City at the New York Academy of Sciences (left) and Mariette DiChristina, Editor in chief of Scientific American. Credit: Christine Kaelin

Meghan Groome
Meghan Groome is the Director of K12 Education and Science & the City at the New York Academy of Sciences, an organization with the mission to advance scientific research and knowledge, support scientific literacy, and promote the resolution of society’s global challenges through science-based solutions. After graduating from Colorado College in Biology and Theatre, she desperately needed a job and took one as a substitute teacher at a middle school in Ridgewood NJ. She discovered that had a knack for making science interesting and enjoyable, mostly through bringing in gross things, lighting things on fire (but always in a safe manner), and having a large library of the worlds best science writing and science fiction. After teaching in both Ridgewood and Paterson, NJ she completed her PhD at Teachers College Columbia University with a focus on student question asking in the classroom. While at TC, she was a founding member of an international education consulting firm, and worked on projects from Kenya to Jordan with a focus on designing new schools and school systems in the developing world. After graduating, Dr. Groome became a Senior Policy Analyst at the National Governors Association on Governor Janet Napolitano’s Innovation America Initiative. Prior to her work at the Academy, Dr. Groome worked at the American Museum of Natural History and authored the policy roadmap for the Empire State STEM Education Network and taught urban biodiversity in the Education Department. At the Academy, she is responsible for the Afterschool STEM Mentoring program, which places graduate students and postdocs in the City’s afterschool programs and the Science Teacher program where she designs field trips and content talks to the City’s STEM teachers.

For the Birds: Best-Adapted Beaks: This experiment uses common household items and seeds, grains and nuts to mimic how birds might use their beaks to pick up food. Credit: Christine Kaelin

A good way to encourage them is to ask them open ended questions or simply ask them to tell you more about the topic. An almost always good question is “Where did you learn so much about that?”

It’s so important that children get a chance to be an expert on a topic. It helps them think of themselves as someone who can do science and builds their pride in their knowledge.

A good way to engage a younger child (and not alienate them) is to get down at their level. Sit on the floor, kneel, or squat - it doesn’t matter - and don’t forget to smile, make eye contact, and avoid science jargon. Working with kids should be physically active and you should keep your talking to a minimum.

As with any teaching, your first attempt at an activity or lesson may be a bit rocky but with greatly improve the second time around. Try out your lesson before hand, think about ways to assign different tasks, and don’t forget to have fun!