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Showcase Your Science! Ten Tactics for Community-Connected STEM Learning

by Eve Tulbert and April Luehmann

8 min read

Summary: Community Science Showcase days benefit our students and community members. In this post, we share our experiences and best advice from creating dozens of science showcases. Learn more about:


We all know how exciting school events can be. Whether it’s beating out a tune with the band or singing a solo in the Music Man, presenting our emerging talents to the community can build engagement with a new idea or skill.

But why? To answer this question, scientists have studied youth out of school time learning and performances...and their discoveries can radically change the way we think about organizing science classrooms as well.

In a famous study of youth development, psychologist Reed Larson and his team researched the moment to moment feelings of American teens through time use diaries and day to day activity notes. What they discovered surprised them: boredom ruled. In fact, teens reported feeling bored over a quarter of their waking hours!

The researchers wondered when teens felt something different--initiative, motivation and concentration. These feelings rarely occurred together in school-based learning, or even in leisure time with friends and family. But their data did help them find a clue. Structured, after-school activities and programs (music, arts, sports) did create this sense of initiative. “I feel strong and in control, like I could do anything!” one participant in the study said about an arts program.

At Get Real! Science, a multi-district partnership that creates youth-driven science explorations, we aim to create that “I can do anything” feeling. We prepare both in-service teachers and pre-service teachers to apply the key discoveries of positive youth development programs to the creation of science programs that matter. In this blog post series, we share strategies for engaging youth in a process of community connected science learning.

Youth and pre service teachers share modeling games about apple orchard pollination at a community science showcase, Sodus, NY July 2021.

1. Start with a Big Finish! Planning the Science Showcase Day

It’s 9:00pm on a Monday night, but we’ve got 40 students--and parents, teachers, administrators, community members and medical mentors--on a Zoom call. It’s Science Showcase time, and we’re adapting a ritual that matters to the digital classroom. The youth share public service announcements that they’ve made about COVID, and discuss how to keep safe during the pandemic. They answer tough, authentic questions about masks, air flow, dining out, and taking airplane rides. They know how to apply what they’ve learned, and bring it home. School administrators in attendance request that youth share their PSAs on the school’s social media streams.

“You’re the ones they’ll listen to,” says medical mentor Dr. Jim White, beaming with pride. “What you’ve learned here will help you to keep others safe.”

These students have spent six weeks preparing for this showcase, a teamwork oriented presentation of learning. They’ve designed their own mask-wearing experiments. They’ve practiced contact tracing--a key public health tool--within their own networks. And they’ve discussed and debated hard questions about the pandemic, such as “Why are their racial disparities?” And “who’s job is it to keep our country safe?” Science showcases can create ongoing community dialogue around student-led investigations.

Research of teens in after school activities shows that well-designed programs add a key ingredient to the soup of youth experience: they build to a big finish. Anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath explains that great programs create a “temporal arc” (Figure 1), where, over time, youth dedicate attention to get ready for a public event that matters to everyone involved. In other words, learning matters when we design in a cycle: 1) start with content and skills that feel relevant and important, 2) work together as a team to create something new--even through many iterations of trial and error, 3) get ready for a real audience, and 4) perform what you know.

Figure 1, from Eisenhauer, Afterschool Matters, 2018

By starting a program journey with the destination in mind, students understand that science isn’t science unless it shared and discussed through co-created understandings with others. Student lab meetings, that could otherwise feel like a disconnected set of activities driven by adults, now find new found purpose. Students leaders start to work together to develop an understanding about something they care about, and the broader community needs to understand. As they consider their audience’s questions, students prepare a story of their science experiences in relation to others. This helps them to make connections, provide evidence and explain the relevance of their findings.

Tips for planning Science Showcases:

  1. At the onset of the program, set a date, and send a Save the Date card home early, encouraging families to display it on their refrigerators. Encourage youth to invite those who matter most to them - pastors, neighbors, aunts. Invite “important” others that youth may know by name such as politicians or book authors.

  2. Form collaborative groups with clear objectives for the showcase, such as a presentation of research or community education on social media.

  3. Create structures for the showcase that scaffold youth participation in public discourse - pre-recorded videos, for example, reduce some of the pressure of public presentations.

  4. Invite the press! Develop a press release with a “hook” that highlights youth making an impact.

  5. Ask “what if?” questions during the program. Imagine together how the Showcase can lead to next step impacts.

2. Anchor Your Science in Community Waters

Sodus, NY students investigate water quality, 2017

Great science teaching can unfold like a mystery. That’s why the ambitious science teaching strategy starts with an “anchor,” or an interesting, evidence-based event that compels further investigation. An “anchor” might come from history --Darwin’s finches or Mendel’s peas, for example. But we can also anchor science in the current mysteries of our town or neighborhood. In Sodus, NY, for example, an agricultural community, students and teachers in a summer program chose to anchor their investigations of biology and food webs in the economic life of the community. They centered their study on a question posed by a teen, “Why do some strawberries from a store taste chemically?” They researched soil quality, the water table, and invasive species. As they conducted research, they thought through system-level impacts on the farms that surrounded the school. One team collected soil samples from a local farm, and conducted a blind taste test of different local and shipped in strawberries. They discovered that levels of micronutrients in the soil had a clear and direct impact on the taste and sweetness of the fruit. And the results of their study landed in the local news, creating positive press for local farmers.

Students learn soil science from local experts at Burnap Farms, Sodus NY 2018 In Chicago, a program led by teacher-researcher Daniel Morales-Doyle supported chemistry students to take up a pressing question. How did a local coal-burning power plant impact water and soil quality? The plant, the target of years of political action and investigative journalism, was the known cause of community health problems, such as high rates of asthma among local children. The high school research team found that, despite interventions, local land and water still showed signs of heavy metal contamination. Communicating about the research became an important next step in community advocacy for clean up. Justice-centered science pedagogy means creating investigations that become a part of ongoing dialogues and action plans, showing students that their scientific research can be an act of community service. Tips for Anchoring Scientific Phenomena in Community Places

  1. Read the news, and talk about it. Ask students to bring in local news items that connect with science.

  2. Convene a community advisory panel. Meet to discuss issues that might lead to student scientific research. Find people and organizations that might serve as mentors to student researchers--and benefit from their research.

  3. Talk about justice. Are there health or environmental issues that can be studied in the neighborhood? Where do we see evidence?

3. Stage Meaningful Science Debates...(with Popsicle Sticks?!)

Sodus students study stink bug habitats, 2018

Learning happens in networks. Research shows that youth with “natural mentors” are more likely to avoid risks and stick with learning (Zimmerman, 2006). Moreover, children that know their family stories and engage in rich family conversations express tenacity and resilience in life and learning (Feiler, 2013). For educators, that means making clear connections between classrooms and school programs, and students’ own family and community-based mentors.

One way to do this is to coach students to talk about what they know as science communicators. Learning how to make “evidence-based arguments” can happen anywhere. By bridging scientific research with community objectives, students take on the new, valuable identity of local experts.

In Sodus, NY, stink bugs (Halyomorpha halys) have invaded the region, causing major damage to the local apple crop. Students collected samples of the bugs at home, at school, and in nearby sites. Through their ongoing investigation, they became experts stink bug habits and habitats. They investigated ways of controlling the invasive species, and educated the community about why the stink bug population was expanding.

In order to prepare for their community questions at their science showcase days, students took sides in a scientific debate. They prepared evidence-based arguments about a tough question: “Should local farmers introduce a wasp species, a natural predator to the stink bugs, to try to control the spread?” Debate teams prepped together, and then each student received three popsicle sticks. Each time that they spoke in the debate, they put down a stick, ensuring that every student got “air time” in the debate.

Community-connected science programs can position youth as bridges. As youth gain experience as evidence-based science communicators, they expand their resources and identities as local experts on pressing issues. That role takes practice. Organizing classroom’s for oral dialogue (or “oracy” practices) can prepare youth to take on new vantage points as science communicators.

Tips for Strengthening Community-based Science Communication

  1. Create home-school connections. Ask students to perform a research task at home over the course of the program. For example, send bug jars or water sampling kits home for testing and data collection.

  2. Stage a debate. Have students prepare evidence-based arguments on the topic of their research. Try the popsicle stick protocol to ensure everyone takes a turn.

  3. Engage mentor networks. Find local experts on a topic of interest for classroom visits and collaborative conversation.

Works Cited

Eisenhauer, S. (2018). The Micro Temporal Arc: A Practical Planning Tool for Afterschool Student Engagement. Afterschool Matters.

Feiler, B. (n.d.). The Family Stories That Bind Us—This Life—The New York Times. Retrieved December 15, 2020, from

Heath, S. B. (2001). Three’s Not a Crowd: Plans, Roles, and Focus in the Arts. Educational

Larson, R. W. (2000). Toward a psychology of positive youth development. American Psychologist, 55(1), 170–183.

Morales-Doyle, D. (2017). Justice-Centered Science Pedagogy: A Catalyst for Academic Achievement and Social Transformation. Science Education, 101(6), 1034–1060.

Zimmerman, M., Bingenheimer, J., & Notaro, P. (2002). Natural Mentors and Adolescent Resiliency: A Study with Urban Youth. American Journal of Community Psychology, 30, 221–243.


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