In the modern world it is understood we will all die knowing something about science. Not necessarily practical or eternal things like the reproductive cycle of livestock or the genus and family names of plants and birds. In the age of high technology, industry and information, from fourth grade on we are taught the finer points of the scientific method.
Here's how it works: If you are ten years old, your teacher gives you a fat packet of papers explaining how to conduct an experiment. The packet defines hypothesis, materials, procedure, results and conclusion, and describes how to write an abstract. It goes on to tell you how to present the data you collect on a standing poster board you will need to purchase at Hobby Lobby.
Then you bring the packet home and give it to your mother or father who must help you come up with a suitable experiment. Popular examples from past school science fairs include: Which dishwashing detergent really prevents hand chafing? Is Coke more acidic than 7-Up? Does Heinz or Del Monte ketchup flow out of the bottle faster?
Real brain twisters.
When science fair season comes each year, I wish to be deported to the North Pole, to fall into a temporary coma, anything to escape the dreaded home-conducted experiment and the even more dreaded creation of the backboard. Last year our family suffered through three science fair projects. This year I'm considering entering a convent.
One of my sons measured the amount of dust and other suspended detritus in the air of my old house, and compared it to the amount in the air of his father's, my ex-husband's new house -- heady stuff in the realms of social science
The twins gave their friends math tests under varying conditions, testing the effects of background noise and diet on test-taking ability. Half the fourth grade learned the words to Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual" and school practically had to be canceled the day the group tested after consuming an all-sugar breakfast.
I like cartoonist Matt Groening's (The Simpsons, Life in Hell) take on children's science experiments. Binky, the one-eared rabbit asks: What happens when you stick a fork into an electrical outlet? Will your arm get ripped off if you stick it out the school bus window? Will prayer bring a dead squirrel back to life? Is it possible to go all the way around on a playground swing? Do bees get mad when you knock down their nests with a rock?
Imagine applying the scientific method to any of those. I envision a graph depicting the rise in the arc of the swing with each try. In fact, after learning to graph on computer the data collected in my children's experiments, a hair-raising exercise in self control that took about 12 hours of a Sunday, I have become downright obsessed with the scientific method.
How many months, I wonder, picking up the morning paper, can piles of raked leaves sit on the lawn before blowing into the neighbor's yard? How long can a miniscule amount of water of unknown origin leak, drip and collect before the ceiling falls in? Will it be a spring snow storm, a summer thunder storm, lightning strike or a tornado that finally topples my leaning garage?
How many days of gray, gloomy weather will the citizens of Colorado Springs tolerate before they start pulling out their concealed weapons and slamming into rear ends on I-25? What is the maximum amount of dirty clothes my washing machine can hold?
By the time my children have graduated from D-11 schools, we will have endured nearly 30 science fairs. By then, I will have either learned to embrace the discipline, run away from home with no return address, or gone to jail for aiding and abetting my children in purchasing bootleg science fair experiments.
It's all in the name of education, I tell myself, but whose education is it anyway?
(First published during science fair season of 1997)