- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 26, 2005

There are only 11 days until the science fair — the dreaded, unholy science fair — bane of English major mothers from coast to coast.

Already, we’re way behind.

The chatter in the school parking lot about exhibits started weeks ago. Some families anticipate the science fair all year, contemplating various topics to investigate and ways to report the results of experiments. They wonder for months what would happen if they place a balloon over the mouth of a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke, or what color birdseed sparrows prefer, or whether an ice cube melts faster in air or water.

The science fair asks burning questions such as which cheese grows mold fastest? What happens to your gums when you floss them? Do bananas brown faster on the counter or in the refrigerator?

Not to mention, the science fair offers the opportunity to use the four steps of the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, prediction and testing.

Science fairs celebrate the process of discovery. Against the canvas of the physical world, science fairs invite children to capture the beauty of our surroundings. They offer the chance to turn a tri-paneled piece of corrugated cardboard into a virtual laboratory. With a little Elmer’s glue, a magazine, a pair of scissors, some Styrofoam balls and a length of twine, a child unlocks a secret of the cosmos.

I wonder if the theory that children learn science by participating in a fair was ever tested with the scientific method. Someone should revisit this hypothesis, because based on my observation the science fair is really just a tool to sift out the scientific, left-brained parents from the unscientific, right-brained types. Its real purpose is not educational, but rather psychological — to ferret out and expose those of us who don’t actually know everyday science.

For example, many parents understand how electricity travels from their utility bill to the outlets on the walls of their homes. They explain energy to their children, who then create tabletop replicas of Niagara Falls, which they bring to the science fair and generate enough electricity to light the gymnasium for a month.

These are the parents whose children will never take home a measly “participant” ribbon. They’re in it for “Best of Fair.”

Now, I don’t want to seem cynical, but I strongly suspect that some of our budding scientists are not, in fact, conducting their experiments entirely on their own. Of course, an appropriate amount of parental supervision is necessary and expected; but honestly, when a second-grader comes in with a miniature superconducting cyclotron made of Legos, you have to wonder, “Does little Sarah really know how to split atoms?”

Sure, a third-grader may be interested in thermodynamics; it’s just that I have my doubts about how many can design a steam-powered rocket boat without help from mom or dad — on a school night, no less.

Every year, the science fair seems to get bigger and more elaborate. Long tables line the gym with numbered spaces, color coded for every grade. Even the kindergarten has a table. In kindergarten, all of life is a Petri dish for the germ population found on sticky hands. Who needs an experiment? When you’re 5 years old, lunch is a science project.

Of course, one fifth-grade boy always brings the obligatory volcano, oozing with fake lava, demonstrating not only the geologic wonder of eruption but also the capacity of some parents to mold chicken wire and mix globs of papier-mache.

At my house, science projects are limited to whatever we can discover by using things found in our kitchen cupboards. Unfortunately, this means sometimes we study phenomena such as “How many people prefer basil over oregano?” (For purposes of the science fair, six is a statistically significant sample).

Perhaps if I were remotely scientifically inclined, my children’s science fair entries would be more gripping than comparing the weights of breakfast cereals (with and without milk), or which takes longer to chew, raisins or carrots.

Our projects never need time to gestate, incubate or ferment; they don’t require hot pads or dry ice; they never involve fire. We don’t need signs next to our posters warning, “Stand back” or “Don’t try this at home.” You can’t get hurt looking at a jar of popcorn that reveals how many kernels didn’t open in the microwave, after all.

I realize I may be stifling my children from developing their inner Einsteins, but I don’t think Einstein’s mother was very happy about the mess in her kitchen either. And based on my observations about science fairs, she may well have been the actual author of the theory of relativity.

Then again, nobody will ever wonder if my children did their own experiments, proving that while I may be unscientific, at least I know the science fair is not intended to display my aptitude for chemistry or physics or biology. It’s not even intended to display my children’s aptitude.

Rather, the science fair stands as an annual proclamation that children should enjoy a sense of wonder about the world around us. It’s a chance to nurture their natural curiosity — to explore the simple principles that combine to form the most complex, miraculous creation ever devised — our universe.

The science fair asks “why?” and offers answers beyond my uninformed “because that’s how God made things.”

Hey, I know it’s not scientific, but most of the time, it’s the best I can come up with.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 17 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks. com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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