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Science Fair’s Fate Unfair

March 27th, 2009 by dk

As schoolchildren start their sprint to summery solipsism (look it up), I find myself nostalgic for the spring Science Fair. Most young people no longer face this looming obstacle between spring and summer, and that’s too bad. Curiosity should be encouraged during the most hopeful season. Curiosity and hope propel us.

Children are, after all, the future. We are the past. The present is up for grabs.

Science Fair experiments fell on hard times because they lacked real world relevance. If your middle schooler spent his afternoons calculating the aggregated risk of derivative instruments indexed to the loan-to-value assessment divided by the deviation from the mean squared, he or she may have gotten a job offer from Goldman Sachs, but nothing useful.

No, experiments should improve quality of life. They should consume a minimum of posterboard. And they should be done in the spring, with or without the sanction of a school. Herewith, three ideas for your child’s consideration.

Unwatched Pot Redux

We know that a watched pot never boils. That was a Science Fair experiment from late Medieval Gaul, but they never received credit, because they were late. (There’s a lesson there.) But the corollary has never been adequately studied. For all the attention given to the top of the pot, the bottom has been neglected.

Not watching the pot hastens the boiling, but also the burning. Whatever has been warmed in the pot will burn at the bottom, and stick to the pot when it’s your turn to clean the dishes and your brother’s turn to dry them. Again, this has been proven many times over. Everyone’s brother has better luck — brothers are luck magnets, sucking luck away from anyone nearby.

But back to the pot. Only one remedy has been proven to unstick the gunk caked onto the bottom of the pot: soaking it in water. But for how long? Here’s where you can advance the cause of science in kitchens everywhere.

Burn something, soak the remains, then calculate the time it takes to clean, based on the time it spent soaking. Repeat until you have an adequate sample, or until the battery in your smoke alarm needs changing.

Your parents will be grateful to know when the benefit of a soaking pot ends for the pot (the soakee) and begins for the child (the soaker.)

Nailing The Least Little Bit

We’re fortunate to live in a town where you still can buy nails by the pound. Ask your father where they are. He’s probably heading there on Saturday, because the alternative would be to stay home and work on taxes. Invite yourself along, promising to save him money. This will get his attention.

The nails-by-the-pound section of the store is usually in the back or in the basement. They have to sell you nails, but they hope you don’t buy them. They’d rather sell you a garden hose or an almanac or a new lawn mower — something you’ll buy again next year, just as you did last year. Nails last.

But you won’t be buying nails. You’ll be buying nail. Carefully drop a single nail into a tiny bag. Approach the cash register and hand the clerk the bag containing a single nail. Make eye contact. Smile.

How often does the clerk charge you nothing at all? Do they ever dare charge you more than a penny?

Bring the nail to your father and do it again. Calculate whether your father should increase your allowance for discovering that almost nothing equals nothing most of the time. Remind your parents of this calculation whenever you are almost done with your dinner, or your chores, or your homework.

Buttons Away

For this experiment, you’ll need some toothpicks, a magnifying lens, and some smooth peanut butter.

Survey your house for remote controls, and count the buttons on each. Carefully record your data. Dab the tiniest bit of peanut butter on each button on each remote control. Keep the goop away from each button’s edge. Return the remotes to their correct location. If you’re unsure of their correct location, insert each between different sofa cushions.

Next morning, examine the buttons one by one. Record which buttons have been pressed during a normal day, indicated by their lack of peanut butter. If you see that every button has been pressed since you began your experiment, then you have a dog. Otherwise, you will know which remotes have too many buttons. Share your findings with your family. Share the rest of the peanut butter too, promising not to repeat the experiment.


Don Kahle ( consumed his share of posterboard, raising two boys in Eugene. He occasionally teaches Curiosity 101 to senior citizens at Oasis Education and he blogs relentlessly.

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  • 1 MomOfOneSon Mar 27, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Don, I rated your science fair essay a four-star though I wanted to rate it a five. Because what if you write something better sometime and then what would I do?

    Science fairs. All your ideas are good, though the peanut buttery remote between the couch cushions set off my eewww alarm. (Which apparently has a lifetime battery.) We don’t have a dog.

    But (and maybe this is a good science project topic), what about parental involvement? Should parents be involved?

    I wish my son was still at the mom-I-need-a-science-project-and-would-you-help-me stage. We had a lot of fun together, coming up with ideas and rendering them material. Once we measured the distance to the sun. Once we built a hands-on model that demonstrated all the phases of the moon. You could say we were a little “out there.”

    Those were the days. Now my son comes up with great ideas on his own, like: What is the relationship between the weight of dirty laundry stuffed into the machine and cleanliness of said laundry at the end of one cycle? Is it possible to teach the cat to “sing” the 1812 Overture? How many times can one empty one’s bladder without flushing before the haz-mat people appear at the doorstep?

    Fun, year-round solipsistic fun.