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Family Dinner: Serving Up Science

Families who gather around the table to eat turn off the electronics, put down their books, pass the salt, salad, or main course, and tune in to one another. With busy schedules carving out the hours of the days for both students and parents, the minutes shared over a meal give everyone a moment to slow down, regroup, and refocus. Working a bit of science into your dinner table talk can be easy—and rewarding for everyone involved.


Compelling dinner discussion isn't always spontaneous! In her cookbook, The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time, and on her blog, Laurie David includes numerous suggestions for table talk, and the Huffington Post runs a weekly dinner topic column that highlights an engaging news story for family discussion. News and human interest stories can certainly springboard your family's dinner conversation, but with a bit of planning, you can spice up your mealtime talk even more by adding a dash of brain-boosting or awe-inspiring science. You might just increase your family's science, technology, engineering, and math literacy (STEM) one meal at a time.

When you think of "family dinner," you probably aren't alone if some larger-than-life image of a perfect, smiling family comes to mind. Many Generation X parents carry a mental image of family dinner that's a sitcom amalgamation of the Cleavers, the Bradys, and the Cosbys, all rolled into one. Depending on the state of your own dining table, that image might seem to be one of mythic and unattainable proportions, or maybe it's the kind of image that keeps you going as you strive to put in place healthy, happy, and meaningful routines for your family.

For years, the media has depicted family mealtime as a mark of a "happy" family, and nutritionist and child education experts alike have chimed in on the importance of the family meal. Proponents of eating together cite studies that show long-term benefits ranging from academic achievement to healthier eating and better social choices among teenagers. In an age where the family dinner could run the risk of seeming old-fashioned, the idea appears to be alive and well, a reality boosted by the fact that President Obama and his family, too, observe a family meal. Despite busy schedules and the ongoing proliferation of fast food places, many families do have a routine of shared meals, expect members of the family to be home and at the table for dinner most nights, and view dinner as a cornerstone of family interaction.

Steering Table Talk

What families discuss over dinner varies table to table. Some families share stories of school, the team, friends, extended family, or the day at the office. Some families talk about headline news. Some families share a "high" and a "low" for the day. Some dinner conversations are simply free-form or free-for-all. Part of what time together at the table offers is a window for family members to talk to each other. But what happens when conversation wanes? If you want your family dinners to succeed, being prepared with ideas for "table talk" can be as important as deciding what to serve.

Luckily, with a bit of forethought, it can be easy to uplevel dinner table talk into something meaningful beyond, "what's the green stuff in my pasta?" While your meals shouldn't turn into a classroom lecture, family dinner can provide a perfect opportunity to spend an extra five minutes talking about science with your kids. It doesn't take much preparation to bring a wholesome nugget of science or engineering to the table. Do it subtly, as moms do, and your kids might not even recognize that you're charted new territory at the dinner table, squeezing a bit of chemistry or engineering trivia in between the school gossip and the talk of weekend plans.

Pass the Science, Please

These tips can help you find easy ways to increase the neurons firing around the table. Go ahead and share "highs" and "lows." It's important to check in with your kids—and yourself. But with just a bit of a stretch, you can turn "pass the salt" into something that might generate an aha moment, might raise a question about how the world works, might inspire further research or experimentation, or might let your student show off something learned this year. You might even find that science talk leads to some very funny and exciting conversations!

  • Dish Up a Simple Fact: Often all it takes to kickstart a good conversation is a morsel of knowledge you can toss into the air and see where it falls. Our "Today in Science History" posts (at Facebook) are perfect examples of the kinds of bite-sized trivia you can share with your kids at the table. The fact itself may be finite: "this person was born on this day in x year and is best known for y and z." But the discussion can be much more open ended. Often, I tell my kids something about what I learned about a famous inventor or scientist that I've researched to write the science history tidbit for the day. Sometimes, I tell them simply to highlight an interesting biography so that they hear about all kinds of different careers and about people who made discoveries and inventions even as teens or tweens. Did you know that Mary Anning found her first full skeleton when she was only 12? Did you know that Philo Farnsworth was a teen when he first hypothesized the "television"—and he got his inspiration from looking at a field!

    Sometimes, you may find that your students already know a bit about the person or fact you bring to the table. That's great! When I brought up Richter's birthday and asked my boys if they knew what he developed, my fifth grader had his own question. Did you know that Richter got the credit for the Richter scale but someone else actually worked with him? The nice thing about the science history blurbs is that they are short and compact, and yet they highlight a potentially cool person, an area of science, and something of historical significance.

  • Make It a Game: Turning science trivia into a table game can be a lot of fun, especially if you are a game-oriented family or your kids respond enthusiastically to friendly competition and the chance to show off what they know. Dust off the box of Trivial Pursuit cards lurking on the top shelf of your closet and put them to use! Or, try a set of science-themed flash or trivia cards like Prof. Noggin's Wonders of Science. These cards can be perfect for dinner, but be careful if you think you'll just do one or two a day. Your kids might enjoy the game of it and zip through a bunch of cards before asking for seconds. (Note: cards like these may not offer any explanatory info—just trivia.)

    Keeping a book of "must know" science facts on hand can also offer a fresh flow of information. Check out books like 101 Things Everyone Should Know About Science (2006) or Scientific American's Ask the Experts: Answers to The Most Puzzling and Mind-Blowing Science Questions (2003). The Instant Physicist: An Illustrated Guide takes a slightly different, non-Q&A approach, but each statement (and accompanying illustration) is sized just right for raising family conversation. Which books will work for your family may depend on the ages of your students and your family interests, but books like these often pose a question or fact—and then offer a detailed answer or explanation. This approach may work better than simple trivia questions for younger students.

    If science, in general, feels too broad to get you started, consider focusing on a theme, like the Periodic Table. Grab a guide like The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe, or the related deck of Periodic Table cards, and start exploring. For kids that like to memorize facts, there are a bunch of angles to master, from the organization of the table to element symbols, numbers, and identifying details. What to do: gather trivia sources, just be careful to look for current sources (or be on the lookout for things that may have changed). For example, a book or game card that still cites Pluto as a planet is worthy of an out-of-this-world dessert discussion. Your kids may even be entertained by hearing about the mnemonic device you learned in school for memorizing the order of the planets—back when there were nine pizzas to serve! Talking about mnemonic devices is a perfect add-on dinner topic! If you have older kids, try having each be responsible for scrounging up an interesting or "new-to-me" science fact on a certain night of the week.

  • Headline News: Make room in your own newspaper reading, news watching, or social media following to stay in sync with science news, events, and discoveries. Knowing that the Venus Transit is coming before it happens lets you talk about it and make a plan for safe viewing. (There's some math to figure, too. How old will you be before it comes again?) When news about arsenic levels in brown rice hit the papers, it was a perfect time to talk not only about the science at hand but about the history of arsenic. Filling your kids in on the notable history of arsenic could prove to be an eye-opening meal starter! What to do: add key science media streams to your social media spots, like Facebook or Twitter, including National Geographic, NASA, Discovery, Scientific American, and Science Buddies. Depending on where you live, be sure and add local sources, too, like KQED QUEST in the Bay Area. Still read the paper paper? Clip interesting tidbits and bring them to dinner!

  • Read Science Writing: Science writers help open up the world of science in ways that illuminate and explain all the nooks and crannies of science. These writers translate and transform research coming from the labs and science headlines from around the world into stories for the general reader. Whether the subject of the story is frightening, awe inspiring, cautionary, or revolutionary, even sharing an opening passage to a well-crafted and engaging science essay can open up all kinds of discussion (and maybe even a vocabulary lesson or two!). Try essays from NY Times Science writers like Carl Zimmer or Carol Kaesuk Yoon, or blog posts from Scientific American, to get a taste of dazzling prose that brings science to life. What to do: print out a paragraph or two, bring it to the table, and have someone read it. See what conversations evolve.

  • Encourage Inventive Thinking: In addition to talking about experiments and results, mix things up a bit sometimes by posing a hypothetical problem. For example, you might ask, What could we create that would take care of "this" problem? Being able to act on the idea isn't a requirement. Just brainstorm what might work and why. Think about what went into coming up with using PET bottles as a way to disinfect water using the power of the sun. It was an inventive solution—and one that can be used to help improve drinking water around the world. Your family challenge discussions can be smaller-scale. A recent Science Buddies success story highlights a fifth-grade student who wanted to create a video game to share with his grandmother, who is blind. Another story features a student who wondered what kind of reusable water bottle she should use to reduce her exposure to germs. Ryan Patterson, one of the science fair success legends profiled in Science Fair Season,developed a robotic glove to help deaf people have more privacy in conversations. Nutshell stories like these can help inspire creative thinking and problem solving, but try tossing out a new challenge. How can we solve this? How could this be improved? What to do: come up with a stash of challenges that require assimilation of knowledge and creative problem solving.

  • Surprise Them: Sometimes the best way to generate discussion is to shock your students with a science fact that seems hard to believe or even impossible. For example, did you know a polar bear's fur is transparent? Or, go really far out: Did you know that a thimbleful of a neutron would weigh as much as a skyscraper? (You might also find this fact written in terms of a number of elephants, which may be more fun to ponder!) What to do: search for fun or odd-but-true science facts you can dole out at dinner. The Library of Congress' Everyday Mysteries section can launch you in the direction of the unexpected when you need to kickstart the science conversation.

  • Know Your Family: Putting more science on the menu doesn't mean you have to be limited to classroom facts and trivia. One way to make science engaging for you and your children as a topic of conversation is to talk about the science involved in their areas of interest or hobbies. An Angry Birds obsession can yield an interesting discussion of video games and physics, and news of a camera body made out of LEGO gives both the photographer and the builder something to ponder. Whether they fly RC helicopters, play the piano, veg out with video games, love detective books, or are amazing visual artists, there are science facts and science angles you can talk about—which will help them learn to find and explore the science that underwrites everything they do! What to do: talk about what they already love, but ask questions that encourage thinking about how things work and why.

Your Own Recipe

The above suggestions are just a few ideas to get you going. There are many, many more ways you can weave science talk into your meals. In a Washington Post article earlier this year, Casey Seidenberg suggests creating a "jar" of dinner table conversation starters. This would be a great way to stay ahead of your family meals and create your own custom blend of science topics gathered from some of the above sources. After a few science game nights, bring out the jar and pull out a science talk starter. Or make pulling a topic the way you kick off each meal.

Whether you are already a family that eats together or think it's worth a try, we know that with a bit of experimentation, you'll find your own perfect recipe for dinner table science success! We would enjoy hearing about your family discussions, what you try, what books and games you find that help keep your dinner talk educational, science-minded, and entertaining. Send your suggestions and stories to: amy@sciencebuddies.org.


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