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O.K., before I begin here, in the interest in full disclosure, I must make a couple of admissions.
First admission: I am currently employed at an elementary school, where, right now, there is a science fair set up.
Second admission: I have not one but two kids this year who will have projects in a school or district science fair. One of these is not even mandatory. I made him do it. (In my defense, he is middle schooler, and, therefore, pretty independent and also much closer to needing a college scholarship someday than my other child.)
So, basically, I have no credibility when I tell you that I believe that science fair projects are a national crisis on the same level of urgency as would be the poisoning of our national aquifers. That said, it's still true. Here is what I mean:
Science fair is mandatory at many grade levels at my children's school. Therefore, when science fair season approaches, the following steps become necessary for me or my husband as parents to take:
- Be aware of when science fair projects are due, whether or not the teacher provides enough advance notice. As a seasoned school mom, I have learned to check the school's website multiple times a week as the familiar date nears.
- Spend anywhere between thirty minutes and four hours talking to my unenthusiastic child about what experiment they will undertake while they behave as if they have unexplained brain damage and can't think of a single scientific phenomenon that is interesting to them.
- Plan a whole day in our schedule during our holiday break when our child will execute the experiment under adult supervision.
- Go with my child to gather the supplies for the experiment. In the past, these supplies have included red wiggler worms, halogen lights, and a special hammer, so some advance planning may be required here. We're not talking a quick run to the corner store.
- (Optional step for geek parents) Build a device from scratch that allows my child to execute the experiment. Examples include an array into which halogen lights can be plugged so that my child can find out of colored ice cubes will melt faster than regular ones, or a wooden framework with an attached sledgehammer for breaking brittle materials in a controlled manner so that my child can examine how they fracture.
- Spend what seems like forever in their company on an endless day while they perform "science".
- In the ensuing weeks, listen to them daily ask the following questions:
"How do you spell hypothesis?"
"Should I sharpen my pencil now or later?"
"Should I put a period here?"
"What is my conclusion?"
"What does data mean?"
"Can I be done for today?"
- Spend hours searching for a usable chart-making whizziwig online, and then assist them to plug their data into the whizziwig.
- Show them how to format their typing so that the font will be large enough to read, and then make countless suggestions as to how to put together an attractive display.
- Attend science fair, scheduled throughout the dinner hour, during which time I have to extract my youngest child from behind a stage curtain, from underneath a table and from inside a polluted bathroom stall before finally insisting that we leave.
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At the end of all this, my child will receive an A and will say to me, his eyes aglow with pride, the words "I did it!"
I'm all for educating kids about the scientific process and about technology, engineering, logical and critical thought and the value of hands-on education. I really, really am. Believe me. But, if our national school system weren't so hyper-focused on testing and standards, perhaps we could make time to do it at school?
Doing these elementary school long-term projects during school hours would accomplish three things:
- Help to level the playing field between those kids with advantaged parents and those without, since no one is getting help from their nuclear physicist dad or their engineer mom, while someone else can't even get a hold of a real display board on time, much less scientific support.
- Make school more fun and meaningful. Hands-on education is fun. Messy but fun.
- Save parents from the enormous inconvenience I just described. Call me a jerk, but I have other things I want to do with my family that are just as important, such as living together, and their regular homework is already sovereign in our home lives. Worse than that, what about the families who can't do what I just described? Is it OK that they miss out on this wonderful benefit that we hear the other kids–my kids–are getting?
There may well be insurmountable logistical problems with what I am suggesting and perhaps I am just tired out after seven, count them, seven consecutive years of science fair experiments. Perhaps I can blame only my badly spaced child-bearing and no one else. But I still think the whole things smacks of injustice.
Dress it up as opportunity, as progress, or as academic adventure. I still say science fairs ruin lives.