Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Family S.T.E.M. Night at the Castle

Traditions are a big deal at my school.  We sing beloved songs during assemblies, hard-working students are recognized at special knighting ceremonies, there are favorite field trips and grade-level holiday traditions, and many students look forward to being a "book buddy" with a partnering classroom.  Us teachers have our ways, too.  We willingly cram around a big round table in the staff room at lunch, even if it would be more comfortable to spread out.  There's also an annual "Christmas breakfast" and a White Elephant gift exchange at the staff party (there's one gift that's been passed around for over 10 years!).  We also have special community traditions, like the spring Renaissance Festival, that always draws a big crowd.  Another community event we host is Math Night.  Math night is always fun, but it was getting to be a bit lackluster with the same old stations year after year.  So, when I was given the task to coordinate the event, I knew it was time to shake things up!

The first step was to change the traditional math night to STEM night.  STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is not a well-known acronym at my school. This change not only broadened the types of activities we could feature, it served as a catalyst for great discussions  among teachers and parents regarding curriculum.  Students also began to notice how interrelated the fields really are.

The next step was to plan the activities.  The event was held on a Tuesday night for an hour.  Families used a "passport" to make their way around each station.  Passports were collected and placed into a drawing at the end of the night.  Three winners from each grade-level band were chosen.  All activities took place in the Gym/cafeteria and were chosen for their level of engagement, simplicity, and variety.  Game facilitators were given a page of directions, learning objectives, and talking points.  Some activities were messy, some were creative, some were loud, some were quiet, and some required lots and lots of brain power.  Most importantly, all were relatively simple in terms of supplies and were easily executable by both teachers and volunteers.  Here's a run-down of the events:

Students used cornstarch and water to explore properties of matter. 
Penny Lab
The classic "drops on a coin" experiment demonstrating water cohesion.

Color Exploration Mural/UV Beads
Students used the same marker on both white and black paper, noticing which colors worked best on each background. This was also my sneaky way to incorporate the arts.  The teacher who ran this station also gave away UV beads that changed color when exposed to sunlight.

Aluminum Foil Boats
Students first had to engineer a boat out of aluminum foil.  Next, they tested to see how many pennies their boat could hold before it sank.

Paper Airplanes
Students crafted paper airplanes using three different sizes of paper.  They were encouraged to explore how certain features like the nose, rudder, tails, or flaps change the flight pattern/quality of their aircraft. 

Wind-Powered Cars
Using only straws, life savers, paper, and paper clips, families created a small car and then competed against each other to see who's could go the furthest on a single puff of air.  This was by far one of the crowd favorites! 

Angry Birds
Sling shot, cardboard blocks, and two stuffed angry birds.  'Nuff said.  A definite favorite!

Playing Card Math Games
Families received a packet of math games they could play at home using either playing cards or dice.  Teachers demonstrated a few favorites we regularly use in the classroom.  The playing cards were donated to us by a local organization.

Math Strategy Games
Students learned the ancient games of Canoga and Poison.

Students explored shapes using Tangram sets (cut from craft foam) and several puzzles for families to solve.

M&M Math
Each child got a small bag of M&Ms and were asked to do simple computation problems with their candy, such as find the sum of reds and yellows. Students were also encouraged to explain the different fractions they could make using their M&Ms and also think of ways they could graph their results.

Estimation Station
We had four different estimation jars filled with fun things like little toys, cap erasers, candy, and goldfish crackers.

Digital Citizenship Information
I created a packet of information about Internet safety and digital citizenship to hand out using resources from Common Sense Media.

Other thoughts...

About two weeks before STEM night, my class delved into a persuasive writing unit. I had my students create media publications of their choice to promote the event and persuade others to attend.  It was a really fun way to assess this learning standard and my students loved being able to help me promote STEM night!  We ended up with several commercials/skits, posters, presentations, and morning announcements!  

It paid to be extra prepared.  I created direction sheets for each activity with talking points and leading questions for the facilitating teachers and volunteers.  I noticed many of the students using the academic language from the conversations with the facilitators throughout the night.  Teachers liked having something to refer to, and it also helped me keep organized in terms of supplies.  I also housed all supplies for each activity in their own clear tub.  This made set-up and clean-up quite painless and will make storing activities much easier.  This was a huge organizational feat for me!    

It may not be wise to plan such a large event on the same day as a field trip and the week of professional development and a big trip. Most of this was out of my control, but having so many things in one week through me off big time!

I've gotten lots of great feedback from the students, parents, and staff that attended.  It was totally worth the work that went into it, and I'm already scheming of ways to make it even more awesome for next year! 


  1. Terrific post, thanks!! There has been a monthly family science night at my school for years, I'm just getting involved.

  2. Thanks, Dave! I'm curious as to how your monthly science night is organized? Is it well-attended each month? Are there different themes? Who is responsible for putting it on each month? Sounds like a great learning opportunity for kids!

  3. Hi Cheryl: Just went to my first this month, since I'm now STEM instead of "computers". There are 3 teachers who do this, it got started a number of years ago after they attended a workshop about doing this, probably at Rutgers, our state U. There was a good crowd, I would say about 20 families, and they were really into it. We did 4 activities: static electricity, acids & bases, engineering a piece of copy paper to hold up weight, and making a noisemaker with a plastic cup and string, that sounded like a chicken! I'm @davezirk on Twitter, that's a good way to reach me.

  4. Great post! I love how you took "basic" experiments and turned them into a family event for your students to be proud of and to share. Congratulations on this new tradition! I also really like the reflection piece afterwards to bring in the "T" element.

    Congrats on bringing this together on such a busy week!

    1. Thanks very much. I think "basic" is the key when trying anything on a large-scale.

  5. Looking forward to STEM night! I had no idea, until reading this post, what STEM night is all about. I saw it on the reader board in the parking lot.....and Riley mentioned wanting to go....but after reading this I am super excited to attend! Math night needed a facelift and you have done a great job at turning this around and making it interesting. The whole Chatterson family will be attending!! Camelot is lucky to have such an innovative teacher!

    1. Thanks so much! It's nice to hear that these family nights are actually fun and beneficial for families!

  6. Awesome! Could you share the directions that you shared with parents for the wind powered cars?

  7. Thank you for sharing your neat ideas for a family centered STEM night!