Monday, August 26, 2013

27 Fun Science Activities for Black Families

Family Activity #1 - Sunday Morning Jam Session (Making Strawberry Jam)

Science and African People. Black parents often say to me, "I know that science is important, but I was never very good at it. I don't know enough science to help my child." My response to this plea is usually two-fold. First, as parents we are fortunate that being good at science is not a prerequisite for helping our children to do well in science. In fact, our ignorance might be our greatest advantage. Second, most people (especially people of African descent) are not aware of how much science knowledge they actually have.

At its core, science is the study of the natural world. African Americans in particular (and African people in general) have a rich history of studying and mastering the natural world. In this sense, the ancient African Dogon who charted the course of Po Tolo (known to europeans as Sirius B) centuries before europeans even knew it existed, were very much like our grandmothers and great grandmothers whose mastery of vegetables, tubers and herbs kept our families healthy and whole.

My Mistake. I remember one year my own grandmother noticed that a pear tree in a church parking lot had a good yield of pears. She asked the minister of the church if she could pick and keep some of the fruit. He agreed. I suppose if my grandmother had not gotten the fruit, it would have gone to the worms. We spent the better part of a Saturday picking and packing pears. Not long after that, one wall of my grandmother's pantry was lined with pear preserves. We ate on it for over a year. It would take another thirty years for me to appreciate the opportunity that I missed to learn the simple, yet empowering skill of making preserves. What's worse, I had to learn from a book, what I could have learned at the side of my grandmother. Parents, don't allow your children to make my mistake. Making jam is a simple, fun and immediately beneficial activity. It is also a great way to help children excel in science.

The Simple. With practice, a batch of strawberry jam can be made in less than 1 hour. I often do this activity with groups of students and teachers. Whether my group is as small as 5 or as large as 50 I have always been able to complete it in less than 1 hour. It is also very inexpensive. Aside from the cost of a large canner (which runs about $25) the total costs are about $18. You would need 3 pints of strawberries ($6), 7cups of sugar ($3), 1 pack of pectin ($2), and a case of 8oz mason jars ($7).

The Fun. Children don't typically care as much about what they do as they care that they can do it with you. Black children love to spend time with their parents. Making jam may not sound as exciting as going to an amusement park or playing laser tag, but it is the act of spending time together around a meaningful activity that is fun and memorable for our children.

The Beneficial. The obvious benefit you have after doing this activity is the strawberry jam itself. The $18 you spend on materials is less than you would spend on jam had you purchased it from the grocery store. What's more, the mason jars can be reused, s it is not a recurring expense. Among the less obvious benefits you have are (a) the new skill that you have helped your child to acquire, (b) the time spent and memories you have made with your child, and (c) the opportunity you have given your child for improved science learning.

Excelling in Science. One of the challenges children have with science in schools is that it is mostly presented in the abstract. The average child has no clear sense of how most science concepts and ideas relate to anything they would recognize in the real world. Consequently, students spend a lot of time struggling to find a concrete connection to these abstract ideas. They are wondering, "What in the world is this teacher talking about?" For example, a teacher introducing Bernoulli's Principle (which is abstract) often will not give it sufficient context (which is concrete) for children to understand it. Instead they jump right into properties of fluids. So students wonder, "What is a Bernoulli? Is it a person, place, thing, idea, process? Where is it found? What color is it? How big is it?" These are very practical and concrete questions that would help them to make sense of the larger abstract principles.

Students who do well in science tend to get the concrete connections outside of science class, often from their parents and other family members. One of the things that disadvantages Black children is that they do not get the same concrete connections outside of science class, neither do they get it in science class. Experiences like our Sunday Morning Jam Session provide our children with concrete experiences that they can draw from when learning the abstract ideas that are presented in schools.

Now the act a making jam by itself may not be enough to help students bridge the abstract and the concrete. So, during the Sunday Morning Jam Session parents pose a series of questions for children to think about as they make the jam. Now let me give you a word of caution. These are discussion questions, not quiz questions. Don't drill the children with a test on Sunday morning. Remember, it's supposed to be fun. Also, keep in mind that it is ok not to have the answers to these questions. If you don't know an answer and children don't know the answer, it is still an authentic discussion. The goal is to get children thinking about the science behind the jam making process.

Where do strawberries come from? Is pectin a chemical? Why do we boil the jars? What do we do if there's a bug on a strawberry? What does Smucker’s do when there's a bug on a strawberry? What is the difference between preserving and a preservative? These questions form the foundational ideas for a wide range of science topics, including: chemistry, ecology, microbiology, and food systems. It also allows children to see how these science topics relate to many non-science topics such as history, politics, sociology and art. You can download the full description of the Sunday Morning Jam Session from

And remember… Have Fun!

Jomo W. Mutegi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis. He is also a member of the (ES)2 Research Program, which works to advance STEM curricula that position people of African descent to improve their current social condition. To learn more about the (ES)2 Research Program visit: