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Planting Seeds in
Future Scientists


A family adds plants to a terrarium
made from empty snack container.

What fuels Marjorie Cobers enthusiasm for science after 25 years of teaching? The "oohs," "ahs," and "yucks" when students are called on stage to help hold up a large snake, the shrieks from the audience while a teacher encases a student in a large soap bubble, and a four-year-old dressed in chemical goggles too big for her face. (The child's mother used her phone to send a picture to all of the relatives.) The images come from six years of an annual event in Hagerstown, Maryland -- Family Science Night.

Cober initiated the science night at Northern Middle School as a means to engage parents in the content of Maryland State Assessments. Washington County is well known for its music programs, but getting parents into schools for other events is a persistent challenge. The recent economic downturn has further complicated the situation at the school, which has 46 percent of its students receiving assistance with meal costs. Some parents are working three and four part-time jobs.

"Parents want to be supportive of academics, but most are unsure how to begin. Some even feel inadequate in the area of science," observes Cober. "We give Things of Science bags to students as they pick up the family schedule for the evening. These recycled grocery bags contain several small toys with suggestions for engaging families in science-based reading and activities. The little toys provide starting points for family interactions and a direction for parents to initiate at-home learning."

Participants explore the insulating
properties of meringue while
making baked Alaska.

Parents or other adults accompany students and take part in varied science-related activities that include making a bluebird house, creating a terrarium, constructing kaleidoscopes, and more. At first, the parents acted more like observers in the back of the room, but as more hands-on activities have been developed, Cober and her helpers have made adults more comfortable in engaging with the students. Smiles and laughter occur when problem solutions dont quite work out, and there are high fives and dancing when engineering challenges are met.

"We get the most enthusiastic responses from the elementary students who attend with their siblings," Cober reports. "Our principal's daughter told her mother that she had more fun at science night than at her own school's sock hop. This first grader also asserted that the next year, she would be filling out the registration form in which families identify their top ten interests in the activities offered."

Science night involves many school and community members and takes great organization. Cober works through the parent-teacher organization to obtain funding each year. Many of the events presenters are staff members, and some hail from other disciplines but enjoy sharing their scientific hobbies.

A student is fingerprinted by a volunteer
from the Maryland State Police Academy.

Several community groups also provide assistance and leaders for group activities. The current director of the Western Maryland Police Academy formerly served as the schools DARE officer, and his cadets have learned community involvement skills by conducting sessions about fingerprinting, crime scene photography, and mathematics in accident reconstruction. The Tri State Astronomers, who meet at the districts central office planetarium, offer stargazing instruction. Members of the Bluebird Society of Pennsylvania work with the students to build birdhouses, and representatives of the Renfrew Institute of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, introduce visitors to the many programs that both adults and kids can enjoy on their grounds. With the exception of some large group presentations in the auditorium, none of the activity leaders are compensated.

"Some of our Technical High School teachers use science night as a means to recruit students for their programs in electronics and biotechnology," adds Cober. "These teachers also recruit high school students to assist with activity supervision for student service-learning credits."

Cober sets the date for Science Night early in the school year because outside organizations often have very busy calendars. As she gathers supplies, she pre-sorts the materials into boxes to facilitate rapid delivery after school on the day of the event. To minimize expenses, she asks for donations via the school newsletter, such as jars of peanut butter, boxes of toothpicks, pipe cleaners, and cotton swabs. Recycled snack containers are used to create terrariums, and spinach containers become dish gardens.

Students race "puffmobiles" made during
one of the evening's sessions.

Registration materials for Science Night go out a month in advance. Families are asked to note their top ten selections from a generous list of twenty different activities and return the form two weeks before the event. Cober makes adjustments during the scheduling process according to interest, expense, and cancellations by families and presenters.

"Research shows that interest in science must be fostered before students get to seventh grade, so we target that audience," shares Cober. "We strive to plant new seeds that may take years to germinate in our students."