(A Guest Post By Kitty)
I’ve worked school science nights from all angles, and have seen them go all kinds of ways. I chaired the science night at my children’s elementary for 6 years, I worked for a STEM camp that was called to bring activities to school science nights, and now I work for a STEM university that has a group of students and faculty who volunteer to do outreach with us.
Here is some advice for planning a science night at your school.
Start planning EARLY. Contact the participants you’d like to have as soon as possible.
Each year, I asked the principal and PTA president at our school to tell me in June the exact date they wanted our event the following February, and I immediately emailed everyone I wanted to have with me and asked if we could be put on their calendar.
Even larger STEM organizations don’t have unlimited resources in their outreach offices. If you’re planning an event in late winter or early spring and you’re making your request only a month or two before, your request is much more likely to be turned down. This is especially true around Earth Week, the busiest seasons for science nights. Believe me – they want to go to every school, but they just can’t.
Consider the time of year and the time of day.
If you’d like to have telescopes, which are always a huge hit, the sky needs to be dark. Check on an astronomy website to see what time astronomical twilight is for the date you have selected, and make sure that the event gives you at least 45 minutes to an hour after that time.
Elementary kids tend to need to leave by 8 pm, for bedtime, so the later in the spring you have your event, the fewer little ones will get a peek at the night sky.
You can also look up to see which planets are overhead during that time of night on potential dates, and schedule your date accordingly. Seeing the moons of Saturn or Jupiter are always exciting for kids.
Know that weather may wreck your plans for stargazing, and have a backup activity in case the telescopes are only going to be giving you closeups of clouds!
Explore your local resources for exhibitors.
I live in Pasadena, CA, which is about as resource-rich as one can get, science-wise. Locally we have Caltech, JPL, Planetary Society, Carnegie Observatories, and many other groups clustered within a few miles, but you don’t need to be close to any of these to have access to great STEM resources. Outreach efforts can often be found at any of the following:
- Your local parks and rec or nature center may have a nature education program they can bring to your school
- High school or middle school students from a science, programming, or robotics class or club may be willing to come and do hands-on. We have a STEM magnet middle school whose students come every year and help the participants do dissections, and we have a high school competitive robotics club come and let the kids try out their robots.
- Audubon Society chapters
- Boy and Girl Scouts troops
- Local universities – either their STEM-related departments or their school of education – you may find teacher trainees who want experience doing STEM activities with children.
- Local non-profits working in public health or for environmental causes
- Local businesses that have STEM-related jobs will sometimes have people willing to come do outreach
- HAM radio or electronics clubs
Engage volunteers from your school.
There are a million things parents can do to help make your night a success. Often parents feel like they can’t contribute to a STEM activity because they don’t have a STEM degree, but I’m here to tell you that there is a role for anyone at a science night. Look up videos or websites that give ideas for building or engineering activities. Many can incorporate an arts and crafts element, and many can be run with very cheap and easily accessible materials, and can be run by anyone who loves helping kids explore.
One of our most popular exhibits each year is a table of donated old computers, printers, toasters, and other broken things, and a giant pile of screwdrivers and pliers from the dollar store. The kids just sit there and take stuff apart to see what it looks like. If you have one of these sorts of activities, make sure you remove batteries beforehand!
Have your PTA plan an e-waste fundraiser the next day and you’ve turned the event into a money-maker.
Synergize with other activities or groups to bring more people in.
We usually have our science night during the book fair – it brings people in to both events when they come for one and stay for the other. Or use the event to bring different parents groups together. Our PTA wanted more involvement with our parents who were active in the African American Parent Coucil, so one year the AAPC and PTA co-sponsored the event. We featured an African-American Scientists and Inventors Hall of Fame with posters created by students who did research projects on the subject for extra class credit.
Have a class science fair.
If your school doesn’t have a science fair, or if science fair is only for older students, ask the principal and faculty if they’d be interested in having each class run an experiment together, and display the results from each class during your science night.
Make food available at the event so people will stay for the event through dinner, and so your volunteers and exhibitors will be able to eat. Never has a trend been so beneficial to school event organizers as the growing popularity of food trucks! Ask one if they’ll come and vend at your event. They may even give your PTA or PTO a cut of their profits!
Permits and permissions.
Make sure you have your facilities permits and site permissions in place well ahead of your event. Most public school districts will have some requirement that vendors show proof of insurance, and if you’re organizing for a private school you also need to know their liability insurance requirements.
Some districts may ask that your exhibitors (even the ones there as volunteers) sign hold harmless agreements. If this is the case in your district, know that most of the time people volunteering for these organizations will NOT be able to sign hold harmless agreements! Petition your school district to set policies such that one-time volunteers bringing activities to campus for a PTA or PTO event not be required to sign such agreements. Petitioning your school board can be time consuming, start early!
If the event is being run by a PTA or PTO, then it should be covered under your organization’s insurance policy. Know your organization’s insurance policy and make sure you have it available when you talk to the site administration or the district. Make sure that none of the science night activities fall under categories disallowed by your insurance policy, and make sure that your school or school district has an endorsement with your insurance policy. You may need to purchase an additional rider for the event, depending on how you are running it. Again, check early!
Don’t be afraid to let it get messy!
As long as the kids are exploring, there is really no way to do a science night wrong. So go – have fun with it!
Plan for cleanup!
Whether it be volunteers breaking down the booths and putting things away or paid school site staff cleaning up the aftermath, make sure that you have this included in your plans. You’ll either need to pay for the site staff’s time, or arrange to have that covered, or you’ll have to get volunteers that are willing to sign up to be on the clean-up staff.
(image credit: Edinburgh International Science Festival on Wikipedia)