Small Talk

Science fair a lesson for Mom

Jean Gillette has a hangnail from weeding her yard. Here is a throwback to 1995.

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear I skipped second grade.

I don’t remember any of it, and the things my daughter is bringing home don’t seem terribly familiar.  This is aggravated by the fact that my children are tackling things that I never had the confidence or interest to consider when I was their age.

We are entering this year’s science fair.

My children’s school had its first science fair last year, and I was enormously impressed with the results.  The creativity, ingenuity and hard work put in by so many children just bowled me over. While other kindergartners and first-graders did enter last year, we (I) hung back.  I had never, ever entered a science fair as a child, so it was all very foreign to me. Even my brother, who became a marine biologist, never entered science fairs. I simply had no base to spring from.

Once we saw what everyone else had done and chatted with several parents, I realized that there are two kinds of elementary-level science fair exhibits: the kind done completely and happily by the youngster and the kind done with the parent breathing down the youngster’s neck every free minute for six weeks.

I do quite enough neck-breathing on a host of other topics, so I decided to bide my time and see just how badly my two wanted to be a part of this thing, if and when it came around again. Meanwhile, I cruised the public library for books on entry-level science experiments and got a feel for what, if necessary, was doable.

Last week my daughter flew into the house after school waiving her science fair entry form.  She firmly announced that we had to go to the library “right now” to find a book on science fair stuff.  Her brother was not far behind.  That was all I needed.

I was delighted with the level of enthusiasm.  This was what I lacked as a child and what I now needed to propel me forward on their behalf.  But what was this other emotion lurking in the wings?  Was it the mother’s sixth sense that I might be buying in for more than I wanted?  Did I sense some additional neck-breathing in my future?  I tightened my belt and ignored that little voice, determined that my children will begin their scientific careers here and now.

The first step was to go back to the library and find the book with some simple science experiments.  The second step was to convince my son that he didn’t really want to do a volcano like three of his friends were doing.  At last, a selection was made.

Then I set off one fine morning to collect all the necessary parts for two experiments involving fruit, chemical reaction and electricity.  We needed lemons, vinegar, dull pennies, a nail, paper clips, copper wire – copper wire?  Insulated or bare? What gauge?  What is a gauge, anyway? The book didn’t say.  I ended up asking a strange man in the hardware section of Target.

The learning process has begun – at least for Mom.

The next tricky item was a 1.5-volt light bulb.  Again, the book didn’t say that this is about the size used in most flashlights, and the highly trained sales staff at a hardware warehouse just shrugged.  After a second trip out, all was assembled for a dry run.

The dry run turned out to be exceedingly juicy, and required far more waiting and watching than my daughter could stand.  I had to breathe down her neck a bit already just to get her to finish.  Moreover, we only managed to achieve about two-thirds of the desired results.

We have a few more weeks and will try again.  We are committed and have spent too much money on lemons to turn back now.  I have a growing admiration for the mothers of Madame Curie, Louis Pasteur and Dr. Frankenstein.

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