STEM Nights Bring Families and Experts Together to Learn about Science

Just like children don’t stop learning when the final bell rings, great teaching doesn’t stop at the end of the school day. Across the country, teachers, parents, and community members are coming together more and more frequently to host STEM nights to get families thinking about science, technology, engineering and math through interactive, hands-on, engaging activities.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is proud to support many dedicated teachers who plan and lead STEM nights at their schools. Michelle Estrada, a kindergarten teacher at Desert Hills Elementary in Las Cruses, N.M. has been hosting STEM nights in her community for seven years.

She is a recipient of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST), the nation’s highest honors for K-12 STEM teachers, which NSF administers on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

As a Presidential Awardee in 2010, Michelle was invited to Washington, D.C., to take part in the National Recognition Events, received a signed certificate from the President and left with a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation. When she returned to New Mexico, her experience as an awardee motivated her to continue to improve her teaching, seek out new resources for her students, and engage her local community in more collaborative and effective ways than ever before.

Sensational Science Night

In 2009, Michelle applied for the Toyota Tapestry grant,  a partnership between Toyota and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) that provided annual grants to science teachers across the United States. Her proposal focused on the Rio Grande, which cuts right through Las Cruces, less than ten miles away from Desert Hills Elementary. She planned a collaborative and immersive series of events for her kindergarten class composed of field experiences, hands-on activities, demonstrations by local scientists and community educators, inquiry-based experiments, and a variety of cross-curricular studies. She was awarded $10,000 to fund her project, and Sensational Science Night was born.

At the first Sensational Science Night, 30 expert-volunteers from the community came to share their knowledge and inspire students and parents to be more curious about science. Since then, the event has more than tripled in size: in 2016, 30 organizations were represented by over 100 expert-volunteers, and more than 400 participants flooded the halls of Desert Hills Elementary. They all spent their evening exploring, designing, and thinking critically with one another.

STEM Nights are unparalleled opportunities to engage the community with the local—or even national—scientific community, and let students know what it looks like to be a scientist in practice. At Michelle’s event, students were able to interact with pharmaceutical students from the University of New Mexico, chemical engineering students from New Mexico State University, local museum curators with displays from their traveling collections, local firefighters teaching fire safety and fire science, and a local Astronomy organization which provided telescopes for student use.

The National Honor Society chapter of a local high school took over an entire wing of the school and facilitated hands-on activities, launching paper rockets, creating bouncy balls and making ice cream in a bag. Michelle didn’t stop at inviting the local science community—she invited local food trucks which offered dinner options on the school grounds, donating a percentage of their sales to fund scholarships for Camp Invention, a STEM summer program at Desert Hills Elementary.

Over the years, Michelle says the name of the event has changed to keep up with its popularity. Once Sensational Science Night, the moniker shifted to Sensational STEM Night, and this year morphed again into Magnificent Sensational STEAM Night (reflecting her decision to include the arts). We’re excited to see what it will be called in 2018.

To learn about how you can honor great teachers in your community with a PAEMST nomination, please visit our website at paemst.org. Nominations for K-6 grade STEM teachers are currently open.

For resources on how to host a STEM night at your school, check out National PTA’s new STEM + Families webpage.

Dr. Nafeesa H. Owens is a Program Director of Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching Program Lead at the National Science Foundation.