Family Science – what works!

I read about a really interesting school called the Open Classroom in Salt Lake City, Utah where parents are required to volunteer 3 hours per child per week. Many schools all over require this parental involvement, but rarely are the parents required to help teach, develop lesson plans and lead small group discussions and learning. I was intrigued by the idea and as almost every LAUSD school has a parent center and a parent coordinator on the federal payroll, I decided to take advantage of this and see if parents could be more meaningfully involved in their child’s education. That is how the concept of Family Science Courses came about.

The goal was to have Family Science Sessions at night (not just one night as most schools do), but a whole series of 5 or more (depending on the topic). The courses would be taught by engineers and would have an interesting overarching story such as cardiovascular mechanics, structural color, animal locomotion, sports science etc.
The audience is elementary and middle school Latino and African American children AND their parents. Both the children and parents conduct experiments and learn science together. Our biggest challenge was parent recruitment and after 12 Family Science Courses we are beginning to develop a formula that ensures strong parental participation (~25-30 families).

So here is our secret checklist 🙂

1. Present a short video showing parents and children doing science together from previous sessions. We have been presenting this video at Back to School Night so that a large audience sees the information. They are then more likely to remember us and make the connections when we send the parent invitation letter back home.

2. Ask the parents! If you have any questions, just ask! So we decided to do that and surveyed parents at 6 different schools (charter, magnet and regular).

3. Show videos and pictures about the topic to all the students (from a particular grade) – so that they have a better understanding of what will be taught and how cool it is 🙂

4. Hand out flyers and parent invitation letters to the students so that they can
RSVP back. One surprising tactic that worked very well this fall was to have single-sex courses.

We had been awarded an AAUW grant to conduct sessions for only girls and their parents and surprisingly the turnout was very strong. I think it was mostly due to the fact that we presented only to the girls (and that had never happened at the two schools before) and the girls were quivering with excitement to have been specially chosen for this program (over the boys).

5. Make reminder phone calls. Initially I was paying a few bilingual undergraduates to make weekly calls to the parents, but my main problem with that was that it wasn’t scalable. Now, we have high school interns (who facilitate during the sessions) make just one initial phone call. Once the parents come, they are hooked and need no reminding.

We used all five steps this fall and the sessions were a resounding success. We conducted two courses on Animal Locomotion at Trinity and Shenandoah and one on Sports Science at Foshay.

Here is a video from the session on viscosity. Participants learned how bacteria and copepods move using “sticks and strings”. They then had to design their own copepods to see which design would sink the slowest in karo syrup.

This video shows the participants learning about thrust by designing balloon cars.

Stay tuned for our next post on measurements of change in content knowledge and interest. Get excited (as Kara says)!

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