Blueprint for STEM Night

   “Laying the Groundwork for a Fun Family Event”
Need a fantastic family evening activity that will be enthusiastically attended? Looking for an event that will be a wonderful platform for inspiring an interest in science and engineering? Ready to create a memorable evening for parents and children? Sound too good to be true for one event to fulfill all of the above? A Family STEM Night at your school is the answer. Having special Family STEM nights has become more popular across the country as schools invite parents for an evening of science, technology, engineering and math. These evenings are not only fun but educational and allow the students to explore solutions to engineering problems, solve math problems and investigate science phenomena with the most important adults in their lives – their parents. Moreover, parents are given the opportunity to actively participate in their child’s learning. It’s an exciting and memorable evening for all.

Over the past five years, our school has hosted an annual Family STEM Night that has broken school records for attendance and been used as a model for other schools. Family STEM night has connected our students and their families with professional engineers and scientists who volunteer to facilitate activities. One of the biggest benefits of the evening has been the outreach connection for the culturally diverse families in our community. This is due primarily to our emphasis that children and parents participate in activities as a family. Students are not allowed to be dropped off and left at the event without an adult. The fantastic discussions and interaction occurred as parents or grandparents and children worked to solve STEM problems. One of the most satisfying experiences is watching a student explain to their parents how to follow the Engineering Design Process in order to solve a problem. Student’s eyes brighten as they assume the role of teacher and act as leader of their family design team.
Maybe an evening STEM event is not something you want to take on at this time. Or maybe you are looking for another event with a STEM focus in addition to a Family STEM Night. What can be more exciting than the entire school engaged in STEM activities for a whole school day?  Three years ago, we added a school-wide STEM day in the spring after all standardized testing was completed. It is an event looked forward to with great anticipation.
What sets STEM Days apart from a Family STEM Night? For one thing, although parents are encouraged to volunteer to help in their child’s classroom, the teachers facilitate the activities. Engineering problems are chosen for specific grades that allow the students to draw on math and science they have been learning all year. At our school, to add a little extra excitement as well as provide a common thread, we always choose a theme for our STEM Day. One of our favorite themes has been Super Hero Engineering. Every class is given a challenge that relates to a specific Super Hero. In addition to the STEM Challenge the students work on in the classroom, they also take part in other challenges such as a school wide egg drop and building and launching a straw rocket. Don’t be afraid to ask engineering and science associations to bring activities that the students can rotate through. Local universities are a wonderful resource as they typically have student associations that do outreach.

Ideas for other themes for STEM days can be found by studying each grade level’s curriculum and identifying commonalities. For example, one STEM day theme we like to use is Oceans, which lends itself to many different hands on investigations. Or it can be a broader theme such as water, architecture, or wind.

Whatever type STEM event or theme you choose, careful planning and communication with the staff are the keys to success. Getting input and support from the other teachers is crucial since these are the first people that you turn to for help. They need to be included early on in the planning process, which needs to begin months before the actual event. This can sound overwhelming, however beginning the planning process early leads to a stress-free event. It also allows you to register volunteers to commit to your event.

Checklist for a STEM Event

Beginning of School Year
After consulting with the principal, lead teachers and other staff, decide the type of STEM event you will be putting on this year.
Choose a date and time and put it on the school calendar. If you are planning on a winter event, be sure to have an alternate date due to inclement weather.
Five Months Out
Present the concepts to the staff and enlist volunteers to serve on a planning committee. This committee will immediately meet to choose activities, locate resources, and determine supplies needed.
Letters written to local businesses requesting supplies or donations to purchase materials.
Letters to local universities, local engineering societies, and businesses for volunteers.
Three Months Out
Send an information flyer home with students inviting parents to volunteer as well as a list of supplies needed that can be donated. Be sure that you have a collection site and plan to organize the materials as they arrive.
Send an email to the staff requesting volunteers for the event. (We have had success recruiting staff relatives, especially high school students who need community service hours for honor societies)
Six Weeks Out
Invite administrators and special guests.
Notify the local press about your event.
Send home a "Save the Date" reminder. Ask for volunteers
Make sure the event is advertised on the PTA website, school website, and school outdoor sign if there is one.
Create a schematic drawing of where each activity will be completed and inventory tables needed.
Three Weeks Out
Assign volunteers their tasks. Make sure you have people to help set up and clean up. (note: at least two people should be not assigned a specific center so they can keep an eye on everything and deal with issues if they arise)
Give staff members and other volunteers their design briefs and activities. Remind them to actually do the activities so that any problems or questions can be answered.
Begin to make activity packets for each center. 
Purchase materials still needed.
Arrange for any refreshments for volunteers- if applicable.
One Week Out
Make sure your custodial staff knows of any furniture, tables or equipment that they will need 
to move. 
Inventory trash cans needed.
Create a check-in system for volunteers.
Have a plan for utilizing volunteers to help set up activities.
Day Before Event
Decorate .
Organize materials in boxes for each area and add garbage bags to each box.
Create a central location for extra supplies such as scissors and tape.
Day of Event
Assign one person to be photographer. 
Provide information about event to school secretary so he or she can field phone calls.
Have fun!!!

To help with activity selection, there are some great resources available for ideas. The very best reference tool available is a manual published by the Family Science organization in Portland, Oregon. Their web site is at Their book called Family Engineering is filled with instructions, ready to copy lessons and everything you need to plan your own engineering night. You can order laminated center charts with directions and clips to support them. Most of the activities require simple recycled materials such as empty toilet paper rolls or empty water bottles. Generally, other needed materials are low cost and easy to obtain from popsicle sticks to foil or rubber bands and paper cups.

Other resources with great ideas include:
Children’s Engineering Educators
Engineering- Go for It
Engineering Is Elementary
Engineer Your Life
Family Science
National Engineers Week Foundation
PBS Design Squad

A few years ago we co-authored an article on STEM family events that is available to download from the National Science Teachers Association website. It includes lots of information on organizing an evening for the school community.
“Family Style Engineering” NSTA’s  Science and Children Journal

 Family STEM Night or an Engineering Day is one of the most exciting community events that a school can plan. This is a great time of year to begin organizing for your school's evening or day. Yes, it is a great deal of work and needs lots of volunteers. But with pre-planning and community support, you will not find a more fantastic hands-on learning experience of 21st century skills for students and families.

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