Family Science

Observe, explore, experiment…exciting for scientists of all ages. These activities are great ones for families to share as children attempt to answer their authentic questions about the natural world. The home and neighborhood are great science labs. Here are ideas from teachers who have earned a Presidential Award to nurture tomorrow’s scientific minds.   Ron Poirier, Past-president 

We all “do” science all the time. It begins with “I wonder…” “ Why is the sky blue?” “Why do pancakes taste better with strawberries inside?” Parents can foster natural curiosity by encouraging such questions. They can also help their children find answers by showing them how to search and observe. Look at some of the questions families can explore together. 

At the Beach:

I wonder what the best mix of sand and water for making a castle.

I wonder if waves always “break” at the same place.

Backyard Investigations:

I wonder why birds sing.

I wonder if different songs come from different kinds of birds.

I wonder which color M&Ms melts fastest…and why?

Looking up:

I wonder why it is still light out at dinnertime in the summer when it is dark by dinnertime in the winter.

I wonder why the moon looks different from week to week.


I wonder if the amount of air in a basketball affects play.

I wonder if I play better before or after lunch.

From the Candy Counter to Mars by Ken Huff:
You can use candy to learn how surface core samples can tell us about the structure of Earth and Mars.

What each person will need:

  • 1 bite size candy bar at room temperature (Don’t reveal the brand!)
  • 1 10-cm long clear, plastic straw
  • 1 small paper plate
  • 1 plastic knife
  • 1 cm ruler
  • 1 paper towel for clean up

Imagine that your candy is a section of a planet. Act like a geologist: take “core sample” by carefully drilling the straw into it. Record your observations. Take plastic knife and cut candy bar in half. Record the layers. Then trade notes. Can you tell which candy matches which core? 

How are the cores different?

If these were layers of a planet, which would be the oldest?

What causes different rock layers to occur?

How would a core of Earth be different than a core of Mars??

Explore the unique environmental features of the planet Mars on websites like

Juliana Texley

We often talk about enzymes; they are the chemicals that make things “go” in cells. Here’s an activity to explore what an enzyme does: 

You’ll need:

  • Drugstore hydrogen peroxide
  • A potato
  • A fork
  • Water
  • Paper punches
  • A small “dose” or catsup cup.
  • Eye protection

Pour a small amount of peroxide into the smallest cup you can find. (The tiny catsup cups from fast food restaurants or dose cups from hospitals work well.)

Mush a bit of fresh potato to get some potato juice. Soak one paper punch in that juice. Soak another punch in plain water. Put them both into the tiny cup of peroxide. Watch what happens carefully!

Why do the punches act differently?

What kind of particles (atoms) make up hydrogen peroxide?

What kinds of particles could come from broken down hydrogen peroxide??

Would juice from a cooked potato act the same way?

More enzyme experiments:

Jello™ is a protein. Make tiny cubes of “finger Jello” (twice as concentrated as regular.) Put one cube in water and another the same size in an enzyme solution. (Meat tenderizer, contact lens solution, or enzyme detergent.) What happens?

Be a Science Star

John Hunt 

Very simple physical processes can make very big things happen! 

Here’s a demonstration that you can do while waiting for a restaurant meal. But to understand what it means, you might have to go outside. What you’ll need:

  • Five toothpicks
  • A very smooth surface, like an acetate sheet or a polished table surface.
  • Water

Bend 5 toothpicks in half but leave the parts together so they make “V’s” Place the 5 V-shaped toothpicks on the smooth surface, with their points as close together as possible. You’ll have a star shape. Put a drop of water into the center of the toothpick formation. Observe what happens. Can you explain?

Then go outside and look at the tallest tree. Inside that tree are tubes. The tree gets water from the soil.

How is toothpick wood like tree wood?

How does the water reach the top?

Why do northern trees drop their leaves in the winter?

Dancing Raisins and More 

Ruth Ruud 

Chemistry is the interaction of matter. In this activity you’ll mix water, liquid music and dance powder. 

Your challenge is to make raisins dance. You may have to repeat this activity several times to get just the right tempo.

  • 4 raisins
  • Dance powder*
  • Liquid music*
  • Water (50 ml)
  • Spoon
  • Small (juice) glass

Place the raisins at the bottom of the glass. Fill it half way with water. Any dancing yet? Add a spoonful of dance powder. Any dancing yet? Add a spoonful of liquid music to the mix. Now what’s dancing?


  • How many times does a dancer come up for air in a minute?
  • Can you make the raisins go faster or slower? How?

 Penny Secrets 

Here’s another experiment that can be done with almost no equipment.

How many drops of water can you place on the surface of a clean penny before the water begins to run off? Use a dropper or tubular coffee stirrer (and don’t squeeze.) What if a bit of hand soap is added to the water? Does the number change?

Communicating with Children about the Natural World  

In our rush to get to places and get things done, we seldom have time for the sort of creative discussions about children’s questions that lead to constructing new ideas.  

Talking the Talk 

When children wonder, it’s important to give them plenty of time…to think about what they want to say, and to explain. Here are some tips for good scientific conversations:

  • Avoid questions that have “yes” or “no” answers. Ask children to describe, explain, or ask their opinions.
  • Take plenty of time to wait for answers. Don’t rush the pace of conversation.
  • Rephrase their questions and their answers: “Do you mean…?”
  • Offer other ways for communication, like drawing, podcasting, photography or construction.

Crib Sheet for Parents

Adults are often reluctant to begin an exploration with children unless they know explanation up front. That’s really not necessary. “I don’t know but we can find out together” is a great model for a child’s inquiry. But for the faint of heart, we’ll provide some hints to the activities in this flyer in the next column.

From the Candy Counter to Mars

Geologists often assume each layer of a planet’s surface is younger than the one below. That’s not always true: lava can push between layers or quakes can tip them. But usually each new layer in a core tells a story of a newer time period.

An enzyme in potato juice breaks peroxide (H2O2) into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen bubbles cling to the punches and lift them.

Be a Science Star

Water clings to fibers in wood through adhesion. Evaporation helps pull water from the roots in a process called transpiration. In cold winters, trees don’t want so much water in their trunks as they could crack so they drop leaves.

Dancing Raisins

Like the paper punches, the raisins are lifted—but this time from carbon dioxide (CO2) released from baking soda by the influence of acidic lemon juice.

Penny Secrets

Water forms drops because of its surface tension. Its molecules prefer contact with other water molecules unless the force of gravity is greater than the surface tension. Detergent changes the forces between the molecules and lowers the surface tension.

 A Note about Safety 

A child’s questions can lead to exploration of something new and potentially unsafe. It’s important to emphasize common sense precautions in every exploration. These are just examples of common sense rules:

  • Respect chemicals: Never taste a chemical and always wear eye protection when using them.
  • Never experiment with fire or something that might explode.
  • Don’t approach wild or unfamiliar animals.
  • Don’t use sharp or power tools without an adult’s help.


Science Objects at NSTA

Science Objects are two hour on-line interactive inquiry-based content modules that help teachers better understand the science content they teach.  There are 60 different modules that cover all areas in science education. 
The FAQs on Science Objects

  • What are Science Objects? Free learning experiences available online anytime, anywhere. They’re specifically designed to help teachers understand a prescribed set of ideas based on the science literacy goals in the Standards.
  • What do Science Objects cover? Each one focuses on a key content idea—such as Newton’s First Law or Mendel’s Principles of Heredity. Right now there are 33 content ideas with more on the way.
  • How will Science Objects help me learn? Interactive simulations get you engaged; embedded questions make sure you understand and remember. The style and tone are lively—even entertaining.
  • How will Science Objects help me teach? They challenge you to explore and explain real-world phenomena, and offer student misconceptions to watch out for and practical ideas for addressing them.
  • How much time will it take me to work through a Science Object? Just one to two hours, at your convenience. You can start and stop at any point.
  • What do Science Objects cost? Best of all, they’re free, thanks so support from sponsors including NASA, NOAA, the FDA, the National Highway Safety and Transportation Administration, the Hewlett Foundation, and the GE Foundation. All teachers of science have open access to these valuable new resources.
  • The system check will detect your current browser settings and plug-ins you have on your computer as are required to access the rich media content in the Science Objects, such as the Flash and QuickTime media players. If you do not have the proper settings or plug-ins installed instructions will be provided.
  • So how do I start? Do it now! Begin or just browse at the links below.

A few samples are linked below.

Coral Reef Ecosystems: Interdependence

Earth, Sun, and Moon: Our Moving Earth

Coral Reef Ecosystems: The Living Reef

  • About APAST

    The APAST is a membership organization composed of exemplary science educators who have been recognized for their teaching and honored with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching.   Learn More...