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Whittier Science Night: A Community Celebration of Hands-on Science

Cathy Klinesteker, Co-Director for FOSS California Professional Development, Lawrence Hall of Science
Photos by Pat Smith
September 21, 2009 | FOSS in Schools

Top image: Students send a marble down a ramp they built as part of the FOSS Balance and Motion Module.

In the Whittier City School District just east of Los Angeles, Science Night filled the house! FOSS science engaged parents and children together in great science from four of the FOSS California modules. At Daniel Phelan School, over 250 students, parents, and other family members spent an action-filled night in celebration of hands-on science.

This fantastic event–intended to occur annually–is the outgrowth of a multi-year leadership project sponsored by the FOSS Program at the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, the California K–12 Alliance, and Delta Education. Participating schools send a team of four teachers and a principal for three years of extensive support for the implementation of FOSS science into their schools. In Whittier this leadership team, along with the on-site buddy teachers (eight total) planned their science night in the fall on a release day facilitated by Jo Topps and Pat Smith. Jo is the K–12 Alliance staff member who serves as the coach for this team, and Pat is the district science coordinator. A month later, the big event brought the joy of learning and sharing to a new level at Daniel Phelan School.

During the planning day, the team members drafted the parent invitation letter for the event, designed the general announcement, and made "homework stamp cards" on which each student who participated in at least four events received stamps for those events. Four or more stamps were worth a homework pass, which meant the student could use the pass as an exemption for one homework assignment. All of these materials were in finished form and final copies printed by the end of the planning day.

They also planned the specifics of how the night would look and flow. Most of the event planning was completed on this release day. They also purchased all supplies and tested activities as a team, a sort of practice run for the big day. In general, the team determined that the event would be completely hands-on with at least one "make-and-take" item per room so participants left with a reminder of the fun of hands-on science.

In a world where teachers have more demands on their time than they can hope to meet, a work/planning day with the goal of having the event ready to go is essential. In the words of Pat, district science coordinator, "All the work on the planning day developed people into a team. Work was divided and made simple by many hands contributing. We had a solid master plan that everyone helped develop so there was no duplication of effort."

Here's a view of the entire evening. From 5 to 6 p.m. the fifth grade sponsored a spaghetti dinner to earn money for an overnight environmental field trip to the Long Beach Aquarium. This allowed families to come straight from work without having to worry about dinner. They also didn't have to worry about childcare for younger siblings because all activities were designed for toddlers as well as older children. Family Science Night was scheduled from 6 to 7:30 p.m. The event started with a 15-minute welcome in the multipurpose room, then an hour of activities, then a 15-minute closing in the multipurpose room. The grand finale was a drawing for a great number of prizes (donated by parents). Wendy Fountas, fourth-grade team member also made up two estimation jars for each room (eight total), and prize winners for those were announced at the grand finale as well. Anticipation and hope of winning one of the prizes kept almost everyone there for the entire time.


After exploring the bottles of different liquids from the FOSS Solids and Liquids Module, students make ice cream in a baggie.

Four classrooms each had four activity tables for a total of 16 activities. All activity tables were set up as centers with very clear, specific direction cards so that participants could do activities independently and move at their own pace. Each room included a grade-specific FOSS module and a related make-and-take activity. Leadership team member, Vanessa Apodaca, and her grade-level buddy, Alma Hernandez, hosted the first-grade room with activities from the Solids and Liquids Module. Their make-and-take was ice cream in a baggie. Buffie Meyers, leadership team member, and her buddy, Fernando Hernandez, hosted the second-grade room and did activities from Balance and Motion. Their make-and-take was a bunny copter. The fourth-grade room focused on Magnetism and Electricity and was hosted by leadership team member, Wendy Fountas. Her make-and-take was called "Uncle Harry or Animal Fur Games" and was an iron fillings/magnet puzzle. Anthony Granados, leadership team member, hosted the fifth-grade room with Mixtures and Solutions and sent participants home with their own clump of gak (cornstarch and water). Anthony also coordinated the spaghetti feed so he had a busy night! All of the showcased FOSS modules were ones currently being used in the classrooms, allowing students to demonstrate for their parents the science they were learning.

Parent comments included, "The energy was so good; everyone was excited about science" and "This Science Night gave me real insights into the science program and its importance for my child."


Students assist their parents with an investigation from the FOSS Magnetism and Electricity Module.

Pat Smith has been with the district for many years, coordinating FOSS in-service, helping with kit distribution and refurbishment, and doing whatever else needed to happen to support teachers as they began the implementation of FOSS in their classrooms. She summarized some of the far-reaching effects of this incredible event. "I think this night built an enthusiasm among teachers and students and parents for more science education. Some of them commented that they hadn't always enjoyed science before this night. Students were excited because they had a whole evening to explain what they had learned in their current science kits. The teachers who participated were able to see the excitement of students and their parents. All in all, we were supercharged for finishing the unit and anticipating our next units."

In some places the importance of science is currently under siege by requirements to displace science time in the school day with skill-building in reading or math. No attention is paid to the fact that student motivation to read, gather data, or do calculations about the fascinating science of the day is an incredibly powerful tool for building reading, writing, and math skills for conceptual understanding. In Whittier, they learned that when children are excited and engaged with rich science, learning across subject areas is seamless. It's a real-life application of the reason given by Robert Oppenheimer, famous UC Berkeley physicist, when asked what inspired him to pursue his field of expertise, " . . . because my teachers allowed me the exhilaration of my own discoveries" Hands-on, minds-on, science alive and having fun in Whittier!