Here's how it works: If you are 10 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.
Your mother and father and you will have to endure this process for many years.
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, the even more dreaded creation of the backboard, and the certain procrastination. In years past, our family suffered through as many as three science fair projects at once. This year, with only two kids participating in the science fair, I'm considering entering a convent.
One year, one of my sons measured the amount of dust 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, don't you think? Another son gave his 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 was tested after consuming an all-sugar breakfast.
This year my kids are visiting relatively tame territory. One is heating a pile of rubber bands with a heat lamp while freezing another bunch. And yesterday his brother announced he needed 20 identical potted plants for his experiment -- right away since the experiment is supposed to conclude in less than two weeks. His procedure has something to do with electrical current, so I make a mental note to increase our homeowner's insurance for the duration.
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?
Much as I hate science fair, it gets me thinking. The other day I calculated how much extra cash I could make by selling used science fair backboards out of my basement. Call it recycling.
Yes, my experience as a science fair mom has taught me to think more analytically.
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 before the ceiling falls in? Will it be a spring snowstorm, a summer thunderstorm, a lightning strike or a tornado that finally topples my leaning garage?
How long of a traffic delay 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 without overflowing or exploding?
How many science fair experiments can a mother oversee before experiencing complete meltdown?
By the time my children have graduated from D-11 schools, we will have endured some 20 science fair experiments. My kids have learned what's an experiment and what's not, and I have learned to graph data on a computer. Which leaves me with one burning question for you teachers out there: I know it's all in the name of education, but whose education is it anyway?