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ASU education students host family science night

May 19, 2009

What do you get when you take families from a Chandler elementary school, Arizona State University students, plants, string, vinegar, food coloring and bubbles…lots of bubbles? You get Family Science Night!

Family Science Night is a popular community education program for Valley elementary schools coordinated by Debi Molina-Walters (“Dr. Mo”), a clinical assistant professor with ASU’s College of Teacher Education and Leadership (CTEL.)

In the hubbub of the cafeteria of Galveston Elementary School, ASU education students from the Polytechnic campus direct projects for groups of children and their parents as they walk from table to table learning about plants, magnets, weather, centrifugal force, outer space, wildlife habitats and the life cycle of the butterfly. The families learn about science by painting, planting seeds, tossing balls into flour, moving metal particles with a magnet, and watching the chemical reaction of mixing vinegar and baking soda (watch out!). All of this activity is done with the purpose of exploring the wonderful world of science.

“This is a great example of a valuable partnership between ASU and our local schools,” says Mari Koerner, dean of CTEL. “Our teacher preparation students have an opportunity to prepare for and promote family learning by encouraging children and their parents to explore scientific education. Our students also serve as role models in science and mathematics-related careers in our community.”

The tables are set up and run by students in Molina-Walters’ science methods class. “It is a final project for the class. The point is to take everything you’ve learned about inquiry, science and safety, and then design three activities for students and their parents; a hands-on activity, a “make-and-take” project and a demonstration,” she says.

One popular destination for the children was the “Bubbleology” table exploring the physical properties of bubbles. Students stood in a splash pool full of bubble soap and an ASU student lifted a plastic hoop around the students. Second-grader David Gutierrez said it was his favorite. “I liked the bubble. I stood in it and it popped!”

Joe Priest, a 5th and 6th grade literacy/instructional coach and district science representative at Galveston, arranged the evening with Molina-Walters. He says that his favorite part of the evening is when students direct him to something, ‘you have to see!’ He says, “That tells me they are excited about science and learning. To me, the excitement that beams from the students’ faces makes the night special and worthwhile.”

The school has held Family Science Nights twice a year for the last few years. “All students who attend enjoy the evening and their reactions include increased interest in science, asking lots of great questions, and having fun, of course,” says Priest.”The event is a positive experience for our community and supports students’ desire to learn about science. My hope for the future is to combine our school science fair with the December Family Science Night.”

As a science teacher, Molina-Walters hosted similar events for 20 years. The ASU partnership started with her spring 2005 technology class with eight students who were employed at Power Ranch Elementary school. “They organized a hands-on science night and more than 200 people showed up. It was a huge hit,” she says. “Parents kept asking for another Family Science Night. One student made it part of his master’s project.”

The program has grown to 10 Family Science Nights a year that attract anywhere from 200 to 1,200 students, siblings and parents. Many of the Family Science Nights are hosted by the elementary schools with sponsorships and partnerships from local businesses and organizations like SRP, Intel, Phoenix Zoo, Desert Botanical Gardens and Arizona Game and Fish Department. The partnerships allow schools to purchase consumable materials and provide equipment for the schools.

Molina-Walters is recognized in the community as an outstanding science educator. She was honored as the 2008 Educator of the Year by the Arizona Game and Fish Department for her work in environmental education for integrating wildlife programming into her science methods class and partnering in field activities. She is currently working to create an environmental education certification program.

“The reason I do this is to see the kids smile and the parents go crazy with crayons. It’s the pleasure, the excitement of family members exploring and gaining a deeper understanding of our world and all its natural beauty,” says Molina-Walters. “What better way to help foster excitement and promote family learning than through a Family Science Night?”

Schools interested in hosting a Family Science Night can contact Molina-Walters for a copy of an agreement form. Schools are asked to meet with the principal and teachers to gather support for a successful night, provide the consumable materials (paper, paint, string, glue, etc.) and advertise the event through the school.

“It’s important to educate teachers about how they can do this for themselves,” says Molina-Walters. “My dream is to hold classes for teachers at schools across the Valley to teach them to host their own family science nights.”

ASU student Olga Toledo wants to do just that. Toledo hosted the table exploring weather and offers children and their parents a chance to create a “tornado” in a bottle. “I want to start Family Science Nights in my school,” says Toledo, who is currently working as a 3rd grade teacher in Coolidge at Harland Ranch Elementary School. “I think we need to do this on a quarterly basis.”

The College of Teacher Education and Leadership, through collaboration with educational and civic communities, prepares and inspires innovative educators to be leaders who apply evidence-based knowledge that positively impacts students, families, and the community.

Jenni Thomas,
College of Teacher Education and Leadership