One might ask, “What is a FAMILY SCIENCE NIGHT?  In the context of this handbook, a FAMILY SCIENCE NIGHT is an evening program or Saturday program of hands-on science activities in which elementary school children and their parents can work together.  It is an opportunity for elementary school children and their parent’s) or adult partner to sit side-by-side or across a table from each other and conduct simple, hands-on, inquiry-based, age-appropriate science experiments.  Though most of the activities can be done on an individual-family basis at home in the kitchen, this Family Science Night is a more formal one in which supplies and instructions are provided on tables so that many children and parents can work simultaneously.  Finally, a Family Science Night as described in this handbook uses readily available materials and can be conducted at very low cost.

(Some links will not be active until appropriate Activities and Appendices are completed.)


  • Goals of a Family Science Night
  • Pedagogical Rationale
  • Other Family Science Night Programs
  • Making Contacts to Set up a Family Science Night
  • Possible Activities
  • Other Sources of Activities
  • How to Develop a Family Science Night
  • Equipment and Supply List
  • Obtaining Supplies Inexpensively
  • Packing Supplies
  • Setting Up the Space
  • Description of a Typical Family Science Night
  • Hints for Conducting A Family Science Night
  • How to Pack Up Supplies
  • Summary
  • References



The two primary goals of a Family Science Night are:

  • to stimulate an excitement and interest in science in elementary school children and their parent
  • to get parents involved in the educational process

A very important secondary benefit of a Family Science Night is to generate healthy interactions between children and their parents.

“Doing science” through persistent hands-on investigations to solve a dilemma, described elegantly by V. Manganus, K. M. Rottkamp, and J. Koch,1 is what makes a Family Science Night so special and very successful.  Discrepant events are built into the activities to provide the element of surprise.  A guided discovery mode of teaching is used in the instructions.  Although we are emphasizing science, obviously “doing” is not just applicable to science.  For example, J. S. Chatzky described very recently how J. Cotterís second-grade class learns about money, interest, banking, spending, penalties, and responsibility for their own actions through learning-by-doing daily in the classroom.2

We assume that you are studying this handbook for planning and conducting a Family Science Night because you have heard about or seen the benefits of a Family Science Night and want to present a Family Science Night with a team of other people.  This handbook is designed to help you accomplish that objective.  Besides stating what a Family Science Night is and defining its goals, the purposes of this handbook are:

  • to give a pedagogical rationale for a Family Science Night
  • to describe some other family science programs
  • to indicate how to make contacts with an appropriate group
  • to provide ready-to-use instructions for science activities which we have utilized for our Family   Science Nights
  • to describe other sources of ideas for family science programs
  • to indicate how to develop a Family Science Night
  • to provide an inventory of materials needed for the activities
  • to note how and where to obtain supplies inexpensively
  • to describe ways of packing supplies efficiently
  • to show how to set up physically for a Family Science Night
  • to describe a typical Family Science Night
  • to provide hints for conducting a Family Science Night
  • to describe how to pack up supplies after a Family Science Night



In our past efforts, we have emphasized the importance of “doing science” rather than just hearing about it or reading about it in order to stimulate interest and generate curiosity among elementary school children.3  We have seen the joy and enthusiasm that results.  We have conducted workshops for teachers so that the teachers might become more comfortable involving their children in science activities.  The next logical step is to bring parents into the process.

We agree completely with J. B. McCabe, the editor of Science and Children, who noted earlier this year that “we are well aware that research shows us that children with parents involved in their education perform at  higher levels than those children whose parents are divorced from their learning.”  She says further that “I am convinced that science activities both in and out of the classroom provide the perfect vehicle for children and their parents to participate together.”4  Several surveys have conveyed this same message.  Two surveys in 1982 and 1988 indicate that parents pass to their children their own attitudes toward science and mathematics.5,6  Therefore, it is exceedingly important that we generate enthusiasm and stimulate curiosity more so in parents even than in the children.  Otherwise, whatever enthusiasm is generated in school will be stifled at home.  In 1992 P. B. Campbell found that women pursuing careers in science and engineering mention their parents most frequently as a significant influence in their career plans and that, unfortunately, 20% of the high school and college women indicated that their parents discouraged their interest in and study of engineering.7  Moreover, Kober noted in 1993 that parents who were never very good at science or who fear or are uncomfortable with science may pass those feelings along to their children, thus prejudicing their children’s perception of the importance of science and how well they can do in science.8  Based on these and similar surveys the U. S. Department of Education mandated in 1994 that every school will promote partnerships that will increase parental involvement and participation in promoting the social, emotional, and academic growth of children.9  In 1995 P. Daisy and M. G. Shroyer found that parents are extremely important components in the learning of science and mathematics.10  In their surveys 57% of the parents recommended more invitations to after-school demonstrations and more direct involvement with instruction.  One parent was quoted as saying, “have the children go with parents and let parents experience what children are doing in science and math.”10

It is just as obvious that determining how to involve parents is not easy.  We believe that a Family Science Night is one way to get parents excited about science and involved in the education of their children.  In spite of comments to the contrary by principals, teachers, and curriculum coordinators who ask what is the minimum number of people we need to conduct a Family Science Night and tell us that they cannot get parents to come out to programs like this, our biggest problem is often to hold down the crowd.  We can only keep about 80 children and their parents (about 175 total) busy at one time with our activities.  However, we had nearly 300 people at one Family Science Night last Fall because numbers were not properly restricted and some were told they could come even in after-school calls on the day of our visit.  Similarly, when parent/teacher teams at Stevens Elementary School in Burnt Hills, NY set up their own Family Science Night after our initial visit the year before, as we are wanting you to do, they conducted the activities three nights instead of the intended one evening because so many people signed up for the program.

Involving parents in a Family Science Night is not without its difficulties.  Many parents are not accustomed to a hands-on, guided-inquiry mode of teaching and learning.  Parents frequently find it rather threatening when their children begin asking or discussing questions which they cannot answer.  L. Okasgaski and R. J. Sternberg emphasized that changing teaching methodology to a hands-on, inquiry-based mode of learning may confuse and cause resistance in parents who have learned from textbook and drill sheet memorization of facts.11  On the other hand, we have often found the degree of stimulation and excitement in parents to equal or exceed that of their children.

Plenty of the secondary objective of child/parent interaction also occurs, especially if we can stay out of the picture and not be too quick to help out with problems or dilemmas.  At the end of one evening, a father said, “this is the most interactive time which I have ever had with my daughter.  Usually we go to the movies, we sit in the dark, and we don’t talk.  Where are you going to be next week?”  Can you relate to that?



A number of people and groups have tried family science programs in the past, most with great success.  Some are more like a show and are primarily in a demonstration mode; most of the ones discussed here are of the hands-on, guided-inquiry type.  None are accomplished by a single person though there is usually a strong coordinator.  A few are outlined briefly to give you a sense of the great variety.  P. B. Strawbridge, with the help of high school students, has held three-hour, Saturday- morning, hands-on science sessions for 5th grade children and parents.12  F. L. Holmes has also offered a Saturday morning program.13  V. Parker has coordinated a Saturday-morning science festival of 60 hands-on activity tables in a schoolyard.14  C. Renkas has developed a weekend program in which community experts guide a series of hands-on programs at different locations.15  D. Weissman has even described a Friday night slumber party for children and parents with activities emphasizing science.16  D. H. Gardner has organized family science programs during regularly scheduled school-year events.17  J. C. Fehlig has trained a team of parents to lead hands-on science activities during the school day.18  J. Swim has trained high school students to lead hands-on science activities in elementary schools during the school day.19  L. H. Barrow, N. Knipping, and R. Litherland have used problem-solving science activities on weekday evenings20 as we have done.  Hands-on science activities are not just for school;21 in fact, some parents are uncomfortable visiting schools but willingly take their children other places.  M. G. Jones has described a program emphasizing literacy and cultural diversity through science activities held in churches, community centers, or museums.22  D. McCreedy, M. Borun, H. S. Mosatche, and K. F. Wagner have described an effort which is fully museum based.23  One type of community outreach program conducted by M. C. Sherman consists of seven evening programs during the school year for 5th through 8th grade students and parents or other hearing partners at St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, MO.24  Finally, M. Tinnesand and D. Creech have set up a program through the American Chemical Society to train scientists to conduct hands-on science programs25 just as we are trying to do through this handbook.



Many of you were already designated as members of teams being trained to conduct Family Science Nights in a particular school.  Your principal or science coordinator knows about your training and will probably contact you.  The principal may, however, need a reminder.  This contact will be the stimulus for you to get your team back together, make specific assignments, decide what activities you will use, obtain supplies, and conduct the program.

Others of you were a part of workshops where you have been trained, but may come from industry, government, libraries, museums, or other agencies rather than representing a specific school.  Networking through coworkers, friends, and family with elementary age children is the best way to advertise your willingness to conduct a Family Science Night and to make initial contacts with schools.  It is useful to have a single-page description of your objectives, how you would like to accomplish them, and what help you will need (see APPENDIX A for a sample which you should modify to fit your program).  Give this description to your initial contact so that person can take it back to teachers, the science coordinator, or the principal to obtain permission to hold a Family Science Night.

If you prefer to conduct a Family Science Night at a library, museum, Boy Scout meeting, Girl Scout meeting, 4-H meeting, family reunion, county fair, church youth group, playground, or in whatever context, contact the appropriate leader directly with the same description noted above.

Once you have conducted your first Family Science Night, you will probably not need to do further advertising or make additional contacts.  Word-of-mouth through the grapevine will accomplish this for you, whether you like it or not.  A parent who brought a child to your first program may also be a teacher at another school and pass the word.  The word will also be passed at the next teacher in-service session.  Another parent who brought a child to your first program will be the program coordinator at a local library or museum and will tell coworkers.  Your most difficult task after this will be for you to gracefully say “NO” on some occasions!

However your contacts are made, consult with each school organizer to set a date; provide material for advertising (see sample copies in APPENDIX B); give guidance concerning physical layout and needs such as water, sound system, and trash barrels (see Setting Up the Space for a Family Science Night); and discuss possible impediments such as after-school activities in the cafeteria during a time that your team needs to be setting up.  Even a principal easily loses track of all of the after-school activities held in the cafeteria without a reminder to check them.  If you are working outside of a school setting, some of your needs may be even less well understood and must be specified clearly.




Ready-to-use instructions for more than 20 activities which we utilize regularly at Family Science Nights are provided under the  List of Activities.  They are in alphabetical order by the titles.  You can print those pages directly.  They are about 90% of the size that we normally use.  You may want to enlarge them when you copy them for your use.  Any number of copies of these instructions may be made for educational use, but copies of the instructions may not be sold for a profit.

Liability Disclaimer

We have made every reasonable effort to phrase these instructions carefully in order to point out obvious safety precautions and to encourage safe experimental practices, safe use of equipment and supplies, and proper disposal.  However, we do not pretend to have addressed all possible risks and safety problems associated with the substances and equipment or the methods prescribed for their use.  It is the responsibility of the persons using these activities to study labels on containers and Material Safety Data Sheets where provided; to consult and comply with pertinent local, state, and federal guidelines; to see that parents or adult partners supervise their children carefully; and to practice reasonable care and common sense in the execution of these activities.  Moreover, we cannot assume responsibility for mishaps that occur whether or not the instructions were followed rigorously by children or their parents.

Even water is a hazardous material if it is spilled on the floor and someone then slips on it and falls before it is mopped up.  We strongly encourage all those planning to use these instructions or instructions from other sources to modify or augment the procedures, if necessary, in accordance with your common sense, your needs, and accepted local codes and practices.  Precautions for the safe use of chemicals and directions for their proper disposal are on the labels of containers or on Material Safety Data Sheets obtained upon request at the time of purchase.  An example of an MSDS for sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is provided in APPENDIX C.

We have chosen not to have children or parents wear safety glasses or goggles since we only use chemicals that can be purchased in the grocery store.  You may decide that your local practices dictate a different guideline.  Are there hazards?  Certainly the answer is YES.  For example, horseradish may be used as one of the samples in our Starch in Food Products experiment, and vinegar may be used as one of the samples in our Acid-Base Behavior of Kitchen Chemicals experiment.  Do you wear safety glasses or goggles when you serve or eat horseradish or when you prepare and shake a vinegar salad dressing?  In one sense you should because both horseradish and vinegar burn significantly if you accidentally spatter some into your eye.  We have decided to accept this risk, but know that you should rinse the eye vigorously with water for ten minutes if either of these accidents happens.




Many of the references cited earlier provide activities that, with expansion of the procedures but otherwise little or no modification, are appropriate for a Family Science Night.  There are, however, many book sources that provide more activities in one place and usually with detailed instructions including purpose, procedure, materials required, and a brief explanation.  Some of the books which we have found most useful for work with elementary school children are listed in alphabetical order by authors (where appropriate) in Book Sources of Hands-On Activities under Other Resources.  A few merit special comments.

If you attended one of our workshops, you or another member of your team received a paperback copy of Kessler and Barrett, The Best of WonderScience, which is one of the most extensive sources.  It presents more than 400 activities covering primarily chemistry and physics and should provide you plenty of activities from which to choose unless you get into Family Science Nights as your profession.  It is in full color and has detailed instructions.  It is a compilation of the first 10 years of WonderScience magazine for those of you who know that magazine and is also geared to the National Science Education Standards.  The activities are designed for grades four through six, but we have used some them from kindergarten through 8th grade with only a few modifications.  It costs over $50 and can be obtained from Delmar Publishers, 3 Columbia Circle, Box 15015, Albany, NY 12212-5015 if you want additional copies.  During this past year, the second edition of The Best of WonderScience has been published.  It is presently reviewed under Book Reviews.

The set of books by Janice VanCleave is excellent.  There are also four other ones covering Ecology, Geography, Geometry, and Math.  You can purchase them by topic depending upon your needs through a local bookstore.  Their greatest strength in our judgment is described by some of her subtitles (101 experiments that really work).  The great variety of activities are well tested, and anyone can conduct the activities from the simple instructions provided.  One weakness of these books is that the explanations are very brief if you need detailed background to bolster your confidence.  These books are a great bargain at $11.95 each in paperback.  She has also written at least nine books in a Spectacular Science Project series covering Animals, Earthquakes, Electricity, Gravity, Machines, Magnets, Microscopes and Magnifying Lenses, Molecules, and Volcanoes.  These are particularly useful for science fair projects.

The book by Friedl, Teaching Science to Children: An Integrated Approach, is just the opposite of the VanCleave set in terms of providing very detailed explanations and background material.  Each section contains combined discussions of both procedures and content.  Friedl is also a master at taking a simple activity and building in the element of surprise, creating that discrepant event.  In our experience this markedly increases student interest and motivation.  This book presents more than 300 activities and costs about $43 (but is now out of print).

The books by Liem, Invitations to Science Inquiry and a Supplement, present more than 450 activities between them.  They are designed primarily for the upper elementary and middle school levels, but we have adapted some of them for the lower elementary grades.  As in most of the other books described, each activity is illustrated with a list of easily obtained materials required, a sketch of the experiment, a step-by-step procedure, what questions to ask, and an explanation.  Many activities are set up as discrepant events.  The main book is about $45 through a local bookstore.

The most significant strength of Super Science Connections is its integration of appropriate children’s literature with the hands-on science activities.  It does this more effectively than any other books that we have encountered.  This aspect is probably more useful to teachers in the classroom, allowing them to use time more efficiently by combining language arts and science, but the book also has some good activities for Family Science Nights.  It can be obtained from the Institute of Chemical Education for about $32.

A list of book sources for activities for middle or even high school children is provided Book Sources of Hands-On Activities.  Some books are on both the elementary and middle school lists.  Especially the new entries by Borgford and Summerlin; Humphreys; Shakhashiri; Summerlin and Ealy; and Summerlin, Borgford, and Ealy offer generally more sophisticated experiments that often require considerably fancier equipment, much more stringent safety precautions, and older children under stricter supervision performing the experiments.

Finally, ideas or complete hands-on activities can also be found at many sites on the web.  A few web sites that we or others have found useful are listed under Web sites.  Watch the links from these to other sites as well.  Also take the time to do some of your own surfing; there is a wealth of activities on the web if you can only find them.




The two most important principles are

  • Don’t try to do it yourself; work with a team.
  • Keep it simple, especially the first time.

Developing a Family Science Night requires a few heads and many hands.  One person can pull together enough ideas, but there is a greater variety of ideas if several people are involved.  The sheer time required to find an appropriate activity, try it and modify it to your situation, accumulate the supplies, pack the supplies, and then set it up and pack it up on the night of the program means that initially, if you have this luxury the first time, it is helpful to have one person responsible for developing each activity or two activities at most.  Obviously, the task is easier if you are using activities that have already been developed for this purpose by someone else.  Once you have a set of instructions that make sense for your situation, this development phase is essentially completed except for minor modifications and improvements.  Even after all of our practice, we can’t imagine developing and conducting a Family Science Night alone.

There are several ways of keeping the development simple.  First, start with a small number of activities, and use more stations of those activities.  It is much easier to develop one activity and to obtain, pack, and set up supplies for multiple stations of that one activity than it is to develop multiple activities.  What is the minimum number of activities needed?  Assuming that parents are helping to hold their children on a task and to face at least some of the questions posed (sometimes wishful thinking), most activities will require a minimum of ten minutes to accomplish.  Thus, children and parents will complete no more than five or six activities in an hour.  In reality, some children will jump from one activity to the next with parental concurrence and will try more than six activities.  In any case, six activities is probably an absolute minimum.  We now set up 15-20 activities for most of our programs, depending upon the space available and the number of people expected.  Nobody completes nearly all of the activities, but that is as it should be because you want them to be excited about coming back again and about trying some of the activities with parents at home.

A second way to keep the development simple is through a careful choice of activities.  Especially if you are choosing new activities, keep in mind a number of considerations: safety factors, age-appropriateness, space required to perform the activity, ease of obtaining supplies, the number of different supplies required, whether the supplies can be recycled or reused, the cost of supplies, and the ease of packing the supplies.

A third way to keep the process simple is to limit the number of children and parents at the Family Science Night.  This can be done in many ways: limiting participation in the program to one grade level, taking sign-ups on a first-come-first-served basis, taking sign ups of interested people and then choosing participants by a lottery system, or some combination of these.  We usually also have to consider space available which frequently dictates that each child have only one parent or adult partner, not necessarily a desired situation.  Moreover, you must consider whether you can afford the luxury of encouraging parents to perform an activity simultaneously across the table from the child with discussion of similarities and differences following or whether you must encourage the child to perform the experiment with occasional guidance and discussion from a parent looking over the child’s shoulder.  To some extent, the child and parent will function and interact in the way that they are comfortable anyway!  However, you may find that interaction increasing gradually during the course of the evening.  We sometimes have to make a last-minute decision on how to phrase this encouragement in the introduction of the program when we hear from the organizer how many to expect or see the crowd in front of us.

Combining the ideas in this section, six activities with eight stations each can accommodate up to 40 children and their parents with some spaces to which they can move after completing an activity.  You can then enlarge this program as needs require and experience allows.




To keep track of equipment and supplies on hand and/or needed for our next Family Science Night, we have developed an “Equipment and Supply List.  This list was developed for a Family Science Night for 75 children and a parent or adult partner  –  150 people in all.  If a spreadsheet format is used, changes to the list can easily be made as you add, drop, or modify experiments.  This list is organized according to the experiments we set up, showing specific supplies and quantities of those supplies needed to do that experiment.  The experiments for the Opening Demonstrations are listed separately for convenience and because they may change more frequently than the others.  Because each experiment is basically packaged separately (see Packing Supplies for a Family Science Night), each one can quickly be checked to be sure all of the necessary supplies are in the appropriate bag.  In the “Get” column we place a check mark if the needed item is fully accounted for.  If supplies need to be replenished, we note how much needs to be purchased.  Once an experiment bag either contains all of the needed supplies and supplies too large for the bag are accounted for, the experiment is checked off in the margin of the list.

At the end of the list, there is an “Extras Box” category.  We have learned that it pays to “be prepared,” and keep some extra supplies with us at all times.  Although not on this list, we also keep balloons, cups, markers, scissors, extra bottles of glue, etc. with us so that if more people show up than planned and table space is available, we are able to “expand” the program somewhat to handle some extra people.  Several experiments are very easily “expandable.”   For example, just by placing two extra pairs of scissors on each of the tables for Canned Constellations, Faster Than the Eye Can See, and Wonderwhirler, you can accommodate 6-18 more people, because the experiments do not require the constant use of a pair of scissors.  Also, there are evenings when one experiment seems to capture the attention of the participants, and the supplies for that experiment run out before the program ends.  Often, we choose to just let that happen and close out the table early; however, at other times, we put extra supplies out so that more people can participate in that experiment.  This decision depends mainly on the time left for the program, whether the same people have done that one experiment many times over (such as often happens with From Glue to Glob or Invincible Balloon), or whether there are several interested people who have not yet had a chance to do that particular experiment.




Shopping for a Family Science Night program is quite simple, because the supplies needed are simple.  Most of our supplies can be obtained at a local grocery store or grocery warehouse, “KMart”/ “Walmart,” and/or paper supply store such as “Staples” or “OfficeMax.”  There are a few items which we obtain through science supply catalogs.  To help you get started, we thought it would be helpful to give you some hints we have found useful when obtaining supplies.

Acid-Base Behavior of Kitchen Chemicals:  The Indicator strips (approximately 1/4″ x 5″) are cut from sheets of Goldenrod (Galaxy Gold) paper obtained from “Educational Innovations, Inc.”  If you purchase the Galaxy Gold paper from “Office Max” and other local paper stores, take a container of Windex with you and ask to test a sheet of the paper before you buy a ream.  If it doesn’t turn red when sprayed with Windex, Wausau Paper Company has changed the dye in your part of the country, and the paper will not work.

Attractive:  We keep trying to “beef up” this experiment and have recently added a pile of magnetic marbles and a stack of five ring magnets on a stick so the children can observe and play with magnetic opposing/attracting forces.  The marbles are available at toy stores, and the ring magnets are quite inexpensive at “Radio Shack.”

Canned Constellations:  Film developing centers are usually happy to give you the film canisters they would otherwise discard.  Black canisters are needed for this experiment, as the white opaque ones let in too much light for the pin hole patterns to be seen.

Cartesian Divers:  4″ glass-tipped medicine droppers enable the child to see clearly the change in water level.  However, most of the droppers we’ve seen in pharmacies are too long or are translucent plastic. “Educational Innovations, Inc.” has plastic pipets and brass nuts available for a reasonable price for you to construct your own divers.

Center of Gravity:  We use several pieces of irregularly shaped, sanded, scrap wood, with the sharp edges rounded off.  The “balancing bird” was purchased at a dollar store.  The map of the USA (contiguous states) was in a travel/map book.  We copied it, laminated it with sheets of laminating plastic (bought at “BJ’s,” the food warehouse), and then cut as close to the contours of the U.S. as possible so the children can obtain a fairly accurate center of gravity.  It is about 6″ x 4″ so it is easy to balance on a pencil eraser.

Chromatography Mystery Note:  A black Vis-à-Vis pen gives the best color separation of all the water-soluble markers we’ve tried.  If filter paper is not readily available, you can use coffee filters or even paper towels, though you should experiment with the towels ahead of time to find out which kind works best.  We laminated the mystery note chromatographs with sheets purchased from “BJ’s” (see Center of Gravity above).  Squeeze bottles may be obtained from “Fisher Scientific, Inc.” or you could use plastic catsup/mustard bottles.

This activity provides a good example of the evolution of an experiment.  We began with unbleached muslin squares stretched over empty tuna fish cans, using permanent ink markers and alcohol-filled droppers to obtain a prettier permanent separation of colors.  However, when the non-washable inks permanently stained a school’s new lunch table, we quickly changed to water-soluble markers!  To make life easier for ourselves, we changed next to filter paper instead of cloth, and “beefed up” the activity by providing a mystery for the children to solve as part of the instructions.

Dissolving and Reaction of Alka-Seltzer:  Thermometers are obtained from “Delta Education.”

Empty the Bottle:  The five-pint glass bottles that we use have what is called a Safe-Cote for safety reasons.  This plastic coating over the glass prevents the glass from breaking apart in case the bottle is dropped and broken.  These bottles can be obtained from a local high school, college, or university where they are often discarded after the original reagent is used.  The alternative of using a plastic bottle is not as effective because the children get excited and squeeze and collapse the plastic bottle while trying to get the water out.  The glass bottle holds its shape.  You can make a glass bottle safe in the same fashion as the Safe-Cote by taping it on the outside.  Transparent, wide, Scotch strapping tape is best because it will stick for a fairly long time even when wet providing it is taped over itself in a number of places.  However, the children can still see through the bottle.

Faster than the Eye Can See:  We drill the holes in the poker chips at home, using a 1/16″ drill on a drill press.  Using a regular hand drill can prove to be frustrating, as it is difficult to hold the poker chip steady and the drill tends to clog with plastic.  Without a drill press, we would redesign this experiment, but try to keep it because it is instructive and quite popular.

From Glue to Glob:  We usually buy Elmer’s Glue-All by the gallon and wash and refill the 7.6-ounce plastic squeeze containers after each Family Science Night.  This works all right if you are working out of your own home, school, or laboratory and don’t have another program for at least a few days or weeks.  However, if you must conduct a couple Family Science Nights in the same week or don’t have a convenient place to wash these sticky bottles, pay the extra cost, buy the glue originally in the 7.6-ounce containers, and start with new containers for each program.

Invincible Balloon:  One summer, while in Kansas, our host coordinator was unable to get to the nearest Walmart  –  150 miles away.  Instead, she ordered balloons from a local florist.  They were lovely balloons, but we soon realized that every single one was “popping” during the course of the program.  While there are always some balloons which pop, many should stay inflated when the skewer is poked in.  On closer inspection, we realized that because these were very high quality balloons, they didn’t form a darker-colored “nipple” opposite the mouth of the balloon when it was inflated.  Thus, there was no extra unstretched rubber in that area for the skewer to maneuver through, and the balloons all popped.  Moral of the story  –  buy the cheapest balloons available!!  We get ours at “Kmart”  –  144 for $5.98.  People tend to use too much Vaseline on their skewers, resulting in a very greasy table by the end of the evening.  Clean-up is much easier if newspapers are put down before placing the supplies on the table.

Iron in Breakfast Cereal:  It is very easy to see the gray-to-black iron filings obtained from the cereal using a white stirring-bar magnet.  We purchase ours from “Fisher Scientific, Inc.” and then put them into a 5″ piece of Tygon tubing to form a handle.  However, you could paint the magnet on a less expensive magnetic wand with white acrylic paint and achieve a similar result.

Perception:  Remember that some of these pages must be in color.  We had these pages laminated professionally in order to have more durable sheets.  To keep them neat we then punched holes in them and placed them in a separate binder.

Soda Bottle Symphony:  Glass soda bottles are becoming extinct!  However, there are still lots of glass bottles around  –  the important issue is to have four bottles of the same shape and size so that the children can see the changes in water level as they listen to the changes in pitch.

Starch in Food Products:  Iodine from a local pharmacy is diluted approximately 1 part iodine:30 parts water, or one dropper-full of iodine in one film canister of water.

Swinging Pendulum (Length) and Swinging Pendulum (Mass):  If ring stands are not available, you could make a stand  –  about 30″ high, or hang the pendulum from a low ceiling, from a doorway, or from a table.

Weighing Pennies:  If your school does not have a sensitive enough beam balance, you may be able to borrow one from a local high school.  The electronic balance is nice, but very expensive, and the beam balance by itself is sufficient for the children to get a good reading on penny weights.

Wonderwhirler:  One former workshop participant, who has done a lot of work in his local elementary schools, found that even his children, who have done this experiment a number of times, really got excited when he used brightly colored paper instead of white paper.




One thing of which we are aware is the lack of storage space in homes and in classrooms, with the result that it is difficult to find things when needed!  However, if each experiment can be placed into its own bag, finding an experiment you want to do becomes less of a hassle.  We are very thankful for plastic zip-close storage bags as they readily provide the required organization.  We put all of the items needed to do a specific experiment into one bag, and then label that bag with the name of the experiment.  However, to keep the papers neater, we do not put the instructions or patterns in the bags.  Different experiments are packed into different sized bags according to need.  For example, in the bag labeled Wonderwhirler (a quart-size bag), we will have 6 pairs of scissors and a box of paper clips; in the Dissolving and Reaction of Alka-Seltzer bag (1-gallon size) there will be 4 plastic beakers, 4 thermometers, and a box of Alka-Seltzer tablets; all of the items listed under the Center of Gravity experiment on the “Equipment and Supply List” are in the Center of Gravity bag (a 2-gallon bag); and a pint-size bag contains the pendulums wrapped around cardboard whereas the ring stands are accounted for separately.  Once all of the experiments have been set up, we distribute instruction sheets for all of the activities; the patterns for Canned Constellations, Scale Model of Our Solar System, and Wonderwhirler, and graphs for several experiments to the appropriate tables.  We also place pencils where needed.

There are a couple of experiments which require equipment or supplies which will not fit into even the 2-gallon bags, so those are packed separately.  Chromatography and From Glue to Glob are packed into one box, and one tote box is designated for Cartesian Divers and Empty the Bottle.  Obviously, the ring stands and meter sticks are also separate from the other supplies.  The 2-liter soda bottles and 1/2-gallon containers for waste water or cereal slurry are usually packed in our “Extras Box,” as is the “Total” cereal.  Once a bag is packed and checked on the “Equipment and Supply List,” we place it in a 12-gallon plastic tote box (we bought ours at “BJ’s” for $4.00, including the lid).  We often make a list of which experiments go into each tote box and tape it to the lid so that we know where to find specific experiments if needed.

The tote boxes stack neatly on top of one another, so if you can find a corner in your storage area, the inventoried and fully supplied boxes can be stored away until the next time they are needed.




Family Science Nights are normally held in a school cafeteria which is most appropriate because there will be minor water spills that will not be good for a hardwood gym floor or rugs in a library-type space.  However, we have conducted Family Science Nights in gyms, cafetoriums (combination cafeteria, auditorium, and sometimes gym, usually having concrete floors), libraries, museums, community centers, fire halls, armories, county fair buildings, church halls, and probably other places.  You have to be flexible and work with the spaces that are available.  We have occasionally not used a couple of activities depending on the nature of the space and the inconvenience of spills.

Tables and chairs are set up ahead of time by janitorial or custodial staff.  An ideal table arrangement is shown in APPENDIX F in that there is space between tables for easy movement and there is an open space at the front demonstration table for children to sit on the floor during short opening demonstrations.  Normally tables should have more space between them than is the usual case for school lunches to allow easy passage of people between tables.  Again you must be flexible and make do with what is available.  For example, some schools have double folding tables locked to facing walls in the cafeteria so that making additional space between tables is not possible.  With some activities, you may not want to set up on both sides of the table if you can’t achieve additional space between tables.  The number of tables is determined by the size of the space and the number of people you want to accommodate.  About 20 seven- to eight-foot tables with seats or chairs are required for about 150 people.  You can factor up or down from that number depending on the expected crowd.  We also use one table (which can be the demonstration table during the opening, if necessary) for laying out book sources that parents can look through or printed materials such as Finding Constellations that you want families to take home.  These can also be laid out on a stage if that is adjacent to the space.

Several trash barrels and a close source of water (preferably hot and cold for Dissolving and Reaction of Alka-Seltzer) are also necessary.  We ask schools or other groups to provide newspapers to cover at least two tables on which From Glue-to-Glob and Invincible Balloon will be done.  This makes clean-up much easier at the end of the program.  We also ask that several rolls or packs of paper towels be provided so that spills can be cleaned up quickly.  Empty the Bottle is obviously set up close to the source of water so that tubs of water don’t have to be carried very far.  Dissolving and Reaction of Alka-Seltzer is set up close to the source of hot and cold water.  Most schools will let organizers obtain water from the kitchen adjacent to the cafeteria or from a janitor’s closet but often require parents and children to get hot or cold water from a lavatory because they are not wanted in the kitchen or the janitor’s closet.  Certain experiments cannot be placed on adjacent tables that are locked together through a folding mechanism.  For example, Invincible Balloon causes sufficient excitement that the table is jarred constantly and would prevent the stabilizing of balances used for Weighing Pennies on an adjacent but connected table.  We have three experiments that utilize pennies.  They should not be set up near each other because the pennies will get mixed up, and the pennies in the Weighing Pennies experiment have to be from certain years.  We do not try to set up the same arrangement of experiments at each site because there are simply too many variables to consider on the spot.  However, you will usually know the configuration of your site ahead of time.

Normally it takes two of us a little over an hour to lay out supplies and instruction sheets for about 20 activities for 150 people. That time can be reduced if several people are each responsible for a couple activities.  Remember that setting up must also be accomplished while most people are eating dinner so that earlier or other arrangements must be made for dinner.  Some schools arrange for box suppers that we can eat at any convenient time during setting up.

As described earlier under Packing Supplies for a Family Science Night, most of the supplies for each experiment are contained in a single zip-close bag.  Thus, bags are laid out first on appropriate tables; contents of bags are then distributed onto each table; bags are collected for later repacking; water containers are filled where necessary; instruction sheets, patterns, and graphs (which have been previously alphabetized with appropriate numbers of copies) are placed at each table; and pencils are distributed where needed.  You hope all this happens before people come charging in!  But learn to be flexible.  At one school, I had to start the Introduction in the library and demonstrate longer than planned while a basketball game was being completed in the gym after which custodians set up tables while Priscilla and the assistant principal set up the stations so that we could move into the gym!




When people arrive, we and the coordinators tell them to sit wherever they want but not to start any activities until after the Introduction.  Generally, the children follow this instruction very well, but some parents may need periodic gentle reminders.

At the starting time, we gather the children at the front for the Introduction, facing the demonstration table.  Parents remain seated at the tables.  Sometimes we are introduced; sometimes we have to introduce ourselves.  It helps to ask the coordinator ahead of time so that at least you know how to handle the situation.

With help from children who volunteer from the audience, we present several brief demonstrations.  These demonstrations generate enthusiasm, introduce several activities which children and parents will perform later, and set the tone for the evening.  Injecting a little humor and the element of surprise certainly makes the demonstrations more stunning and raises the excitement level.  For example, we may perform The Invincible Bag experiment by having a child hold a zip-close bag filled with water while we try to push a pencil through the bag to illustrate some of the principles involved in a later activity in which children try to push a wooden skewer through a balloon without puncturing it.  The audience is expecting the child to get wet throughout the experiment, but, of course, it never happens because the zip-close bag seals around the pencil and prevents water from leaking out.

During the Introduction we also describe how children will work with their parents at their own pace and move from station to station during the evening.  We note that some activities yield products that can be taken home and that these are specifically marked on the instruction sheets.  We also remind them not to remove any other items from the tables (and particularly wooden skewers which should not leave the table for safety reasons as well), or supplies will not be there for the next persons.  We urge parents to involve children with the questions that are raised on the instruction sheets and prod children and parents to graph data where requested.  We point out the book table where parents can look at materials that they might purchase for use in the home and remind them a take a two-page copy of  Finding Constellations (see APPENDIX G, in case parents don’t know how to find the constellation in the night sky that matches the child’s Canned Constellation).  Finally, we thank all sponsors and individuals who have helped to make the evening a success before sending children back to work with their parents.  The Introduction normally takes about 20 minutes.

During the next hour children, with occasional assistance or direct help from a parent or adult partner, perform many of the activities at the tables.  None will have time to do all of the experiments.  During this time Priscilla and I, who are very evident in our colorfully decorated white laboratory coats, move through the crowd.  One of our roles is to obtain additional supplies if they are needed or to locate supplies, if possible, that allow child and parent to try something which they have devised.  If we are asked questions, we try to raise other questions that will encourage the child and parent to seek their own answer.  For us at least, it is more important that the child and parent communicate meaningfully with each other than it is that the science be exactly right.  This is a very important principle because we have found that if there is an authority figure at each table prepared to answer any and all questions, most interaction between child and parent ceases since it is easier to ask the authority.  This period is one of noisy excitement, but if it is well planned, it almost runs itself.

At the end of the evening we usually have a ten-minute Closing session during which we discuss a couple of activities in more detail or show how they might be done more efficiently and effectively.  We often choose which ones based on the number of questions we were asked about an activity during the evening, observations we made which showed that people were doing an activity incompletely or without understanding what they were doing, or any other criteria.

Even though people beg, don’t let the program drag on.  You want them to leave with a desire to do more, and many of them are too young to stay up later with school again the next morning.

Some parents ask for copies of the activities.  We do not provide these on the spot.  However, after checking this out ahead of time with the coordinator, we tell parents that the coordinator has a master copy and can provide a set of instructions to parents who send a note (perhaps for the cost of copying or frequently free of charge).  Eventually anyone will be able to print our activities from this Web site.

We ask that a couple of parents remain afterwards to help clean up, but you should resist the temptation to accept the assistance of others beyond your trained team.  Other parents mean well, but they will throw things away that you want to save, they will not pack things the way you would do it, and it will save you time that evening at the expense of much more time reorganizing the next day or a few days later.




Following are hints which provided solutions to problems that we have encountered with our programs or which others have suggested while participating in our programs or conducting their own.  They are listed rather randomly.

(1) Be very careful to specify the number of people that you can handle given the facilities, and call the coordinator periodically to make certain that the school or other group is holding to that number.  The program is suddenly out of control if you have planned and set up for 90 people and 140 arrive!  It will be overcrowded, you can’t keep them all busy at one time, there isn’t space anyway, and some will go home disgruntled about science.

(2) Depending on your ability to project your voice, the acoustics of the space used, and the number of people expected, a microphone may be very helpful for the Introduction and the Closing.  We don’t like to be tied to a microphone and lose our freedom of movement, but sometimes it is absolutely necessary.  You should check this out ahead of time with the coordinator.  Some places even have roving microphones that work very effectively.

(3) You will occasionally encounter over-aggressive parents.  Parents are just as wide-eyed and excited as children at these programs.  They may just get so excited about science for the first time in their life that they are out of control.  Sometimes we have to remind them to slow down and give their child a chance!  Alternatively, occasional parents see this as an opportunity to show their child how much they know and how important they are.  A gentle “cool it, and give your child an opportunity to do the experiments” generally solves the problem.  Remind them that this program is primarily for the benefit of the child.

(4) You will also encounter wayward parents who stand at the side of the room talking to other parents about the football game last week or whatever while their children struggle by themselves.  Again a gentle reminder that they should be working with their children may help.  Some might be obstinate and hard to change on the spot.

(5) Try not to answer questions directly.  Rather, ask further questions to steer the child and parent in a direction that will allow them to answer their own question.  You convey a very important principle about how science works when you raise more questions for them to think about.  Moreover, you may stimulate evenings of activities at home and a child and parent really communicating and interacting for the first time in their lives.

(6) If baby-sitting is too costly or hard to find for some parents, enlist the services of a high school service club such as Key Club to provide baby-sitting for very young children.  These members are often seeking to fulfill their service hours, and this allows parents and children to come who could not otherwise.  Similarly, if a single parent has more than one child who could attend the Family Science Night, it is very difficult to be working and interacting with more than one child simultaneously.  Again, enlist high school students from service clubs to act as adult partners for the evening.  They will also learn much from the experience.

(7) Parents, and even some children, in inner-city schools may not read English very well, but may read Spanish easily.  The need then is for instructions in Spanish as well as English.  We presently have a handwritten Spanish set, translated by Michelle Delamaine in Lancaster, PA, and can provide a copy of them with sufficient notice.  At some later time we may even have them typed!

(8) A number of people have asked for more pictures on our instructions to help those who don’t yet read very effectively.  Being the super artists and camera bugs that we are, that is happening only very slowly.  However, please feel free to add pictures or diagrams to our instructions, and we would appreciate also being able to have copies and benefit from your efforts.

(9) Some people have indicated that the Purpose section of our instructions is too brief and that more needs to be said about why a given activity is important and what are its applications.  Others want more follow-up questions which children and parents can discuss later.  Again, feel free to supplement our instructions.  One of our overriding goals has been to keep the instructions to a single page wherever possible because we have found that it is hard to get some children to stick with what we have.  Nevertheless, use your own judgment and talents.




The most difficult part of clean-up time is politely saying “No, thank you!” to many offers to help clean up.  One night, following a program to which 250 people came, several people pitched in to help us clean up, and we were out of there in 1/2 hour.  They were wonderful, and very proud of the rapid clean up.  Unfortunately, they were not with us the following two days as we inventoried materials for many extra hours, due to the mixing-up of experiments in bags, items thrown away, etc.  Ideally, you will have a committee with whom you are working who understand the packing and inventory process so that as they pack, it is done in such a way as to enable the inventory for the next program to proceed much more quickly.

To help the packing up process, on each experiment bag, we tape a list of the items which should go into that bag following the program.  For example, on the “Canned Constellations” bag is listed: 3 permanent ink markers, 6 pairs of scissors, push pins, and film canisters.  Thus, whoever packs knows that 3 markers and 6 pairs of scissors go into that bag.  If there are extra markers or scissors on the table, they are to be left in a separate pile.  They are also aware that the push pins and the remaining unused canisters go into this bag, but do not have to be counted.  Then, when we inventory that bag for the next program, we can quickly see if there are sufficient push pins, note that there are 3 markers and 6 pairs of scissors, and add the appropriate number of canisters.

Using newspapers on the tables for From Glue to Glob and Invincible Balloon is very helpful.  However, be sure that someone very familiar with those experiments is in charge of cleaning them up, as items can easily get lost in disposing the newspapers.  We always have a plastic grocery bag with us to clean up From Glue to Glob and put all of the items which need to be washed off into that bag – including markers, wash bottles, and glue bottles, because we find it easier to clean them at home than to do so at the end of the program.

If there are experiments no longer in use near the end of the program, we begin to clean up those tables early.  You will find that even when the program is over, some children and some parents will continue to work at an experiment.  We usually let them continue for a time if there are other experiments to put away.  However, when that table needs to be cleaned, we let them know that the evening is over and if they want to continue, they will have to do so at home.

The experiment bags are then packed into our “BJ’s” tubs, placed into the back of our van, and once again, we are grateful that another evening program of science activities provided much fun, considerable excitement and stimulation, some knowledge, and lots of good interaction for many children and their parents!



Overall these Family Science Nights accomplish far more than we could have imagined.  They generate a passion for science in elementary school children, they involve parents as teachers and learners in the educational process, they provide positive educational experiences and powerful interactions between children and parents, and they meet a national goal of getting the general public involved with and excited about science.  Try one, and see for yourself!



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14. V. Parker, “Family Fun at SCI-FEST,” Science and Children, 1996, 34 (2), 24

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25. M. Tinnesand and D. Creech, “Scientists Reaching Out to Their Communities: the Kids and Chemistry Program,” CHED 031, Pre-High School Science Symposium, 210th American Chemical Society National Meeting, Chicago, IL, Aug 20-24, 1995

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