Monday, February 21, 2011

Unfair Science

It's that dreaded time of year again. The season that includes the inevitable incomprehensible, costly and humiliating ritual that leaves us drained of resources, resiliency and humanity.

Yes, it is Science Fair time.

There is no more compelling evidence of the misguided nature of our public school system than the Science Fair. Who had the bright idea that Elementary School children need to observe worms, grow mold, or mix household cleaners? Whoops. Did I type "Elementary School children"? My error. I am quite certain that no individual under 35 has ever had any role in the conceptualization or construction of a Science Fair project. If public school administrators think grown-ups need to hone their rock-collecting, soil-type identification, or velocity-measuring skills, they should make it a pre-condition of bearing a child. But since, as far as I know, this is not the case, Science Fair should be left to those two kids who enjoyed studying bugs in pre-school. The rest of us have TV to watch.

The date of the Science Fair is made known to the parents shortly after the start of the school year. And by the time your child is in second grade, you have at least one Fair under your belt and know what is involved. Yet, it isn't until days before the project is due--a good seven months into the school year--that many of these projects are even contemplated. Knowing the preparations involved--including tracking down the "household items" in specialty stores, remembering where you put the hot-glue gun from the previous year, and making sure you have enough cyan ink for your printer--why are most projects started until days, if not hours, before it is to be displayed in front of hundreds of high-achieving parents, many of them in the science field themselves?

The reason, I posit, is because every year parents desperately hope for a miracle: That their child will show an interest this year and come up with an idea themselves. Any idea. Seriously, anything.  Just so parents don't have to frantically go to the same "Science Fair ideas" website year after year and try to convince their child how their life would be enriched by studying why ice melts or which flavor of Capri Sun is most popular among their peers. If your child looks up from the Wii long enough to shoot down your ideas, the next line of reasoning involves undoing all the positive self-esteem you have tried to build in them by telling them their friends will make fun of them if their project is lame. When that doesn't get even the bat of an eye, parents pull out the big guns: If you do not do more of your project this year than last, no more Wii for a week.

Under dire threat, even the most unscientifically inclined child will feign some sort of interest, and humor the parent while the parent presents the child with articles, books, and still-in-the-package items for the project. Keep in mind that by this point (less than a week before Science Fair), the library is completely out of any science-related books (damn those organized parents with curious, disciplined children), so the parent spent all Sunday night on Amazon selecting a dozen books--sight unseen--in hopes that there may be a chapter or diagram in one of them that would relate to the chosen project. And, yes, these books were all shipped overnight at great cost. If you ever wondered why yard sales and used book stores are filled with never-opened school science books, wonder no more.

We have the unfortunate bad luck to live in a community that is just minutes from both CalTech and USC Medical School. A disproportionate number of our fine neighbors make a living conducting scientific research. Some may even have scienitific theories named after them. So perhaps the tenor of the pre-Fair negotiations are a little different in those households than in our own. But our own home consists of two Ph.D.s who are involved in the quest for (social) science knowledge, and neither of us seems to be able to muster any enthusiasm for this particular scientific process. Most of our attempts to convey physics theories to be understandable to a liberal-artsy 4th grader end with the phrase: "It's kind of hard to explain."

My son's first project was an 11th-hour study of what items Play-Doh adheres to. This involved me spending most of my work day sticking clay to things in my office and surreptitiously logging results and taking pictures in between patients. But the real work came when I had to cajole "observations" from my son (in "his" own words) to turn into printable statements that could be affixed to an enormous white board. If you have ever stared at a blank page and experienced fear-inducing writer's block, then you have some sense of what it is like to be mocked by 32X46 inches of clean, white cardboard. Just choosing fonts and colors can overwhelm even the most Zen of people.

Last year, my son teamed up with a classmate to do a project based on a kit the boy's father bought online. Neither my son nor his friend had any idea what sort of kit was purchased, but were excited about the prospect of hanging out together, maybe playing some Wii. I was thrilled not to have to be involved in the scientific process at all. However, nothing is as stressful to a control-freak, Type A mom than having someone else's parent--a father, no less--overseeing your child's academic output. Especially since the boy's parents lived apart and had more than a bit of tension  between them. The dad thought it was funny to let the boys go wild with tempera paint all over the display board, so much so that the paint obscured many of the results that I had spent hours designing, choosing fonts, and printing out. It was not funny. And to this day, my son still can't tell us what the kit the boy's dad ordered was supposed to demonstrate. Needless to say, my son will no longer be collaborating with anyone who is not related to him by blood or marriage.

This year, I was heartened that my son showed an interest in his project. He is a big baseball fan and enthusiastically came up with a number of innovative ideas related to baseball play or statistics. He even took initiative one day and dutifully logged each pitch thrown by a computerized Zack Greinke on his Wii MLB 2K10 game. I swear, the video players are even more realistic than the real-life players. But when he explained his idea, having to do with the probability of Greinke throwing a change-up to a left-handed batter in a certain inning, I realized that we were talking dissertation material, not 4th grade science. It took some convincing to dumb his ideas down to make them simple enough for me--I mean him--to do. I won't give away the end, but the eventual project involved a ladder, two parents, 18 balls, data collected, data lost, data recollected, balls lost, something about kinetic energy, and copious amounts of rain.

I am exhausted. And I haven't even picked a font yet.


  1. Wow. You guys take science seriously. I think my science project one year was whether people could tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi in a blind taste test.

    Most people can.

  2. Hi, Doug--That's a great one! I'll have to --I mean my son will have to--remember that one for next year. I bet the New Coke/Classic Coke taste test was a popular one in the 1980s. Maybe a Stoli versus Absolut taste test? Once the creative juices start flowing, the ideas just keep coming! Take care. Love your blog! Best, Karen

  3. So what happens if you don't submit a project? DO you get kicked out of school?

  4. Hi, Josie! I think the penalty for not doing a Science Fair (why do I keep capitalizing that??) project is leftovers for school lunch... The sad part about the whole thing for the super-competitive parents is that the science fair (aha! lower case this time) is not even graded. So all this work and no glory! :) Take care! Best, Karen