Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Biting Off More Than I Can Chew

The theme of my life...well, that and "flying by the seat of my pants."

February is science fair month at the academy. The Dirks bunch has a long standing tradition at the science fair. We like to win it. I am all about the science projects. I love it when the kids come up with their own ideas and then we work together to come up with a scientific method to test them. Unfortunately, my kids think BIG.

It started when Hannah was a third grader embarking on her first science fair adventure. She wanted to watch roots grow, so we came up with a plan to make a planter bisected at an angle with Plexiglas to make roots visible. Great plan. However, my little Hannah was absolutely set on doing the project by herself. When she insisted that having her parents cut the Tupperware with the saw was CHEATING, we had to put in a call to Miss W who graciously explained to Hannah that parents could, in fact, do all of the power tooling necessary to complete the project. Hannah tied for Grand Champion that year...WITH A SENIOR IN HIGH SCHOOL.

Addy's first year she wanted to investigate the causes of tsunamis. After a lot of research, she found that there are three natural causes of tidal waves: wind, land slide, and earthquake. Then we developed three simulators to test which created the largest waves. (Simulator is a pretty fancy word for what we did which involved huge Rubbermaid's, water, sand, wood, bricks, wire, and a fan.) It would have been much easier to choose her project for her...something simple, but she learned a lot. Addy won her division that year.

Through the years, we have: tested how different genres of music affect heart rate, found which stain treaters work best on common stains, found out which brand of paper towel is the strongest, tested whether Diet Dr. Pepper actually tastes like Dr. Pepper, hung nails in different beverages to see if any of them caused corrosion, tested whether boys or girls have more cavities, observed whether or not shoppers are more helpful to somebody who is dressed nicely or to somebody who is dressed shabbily (neither, it turns out), built biomes, investigated the Bermuda Triangle, and tried to determine if (in our area) people lived longer in the past or now. These experiments have involved hundreds of volunteers, dozens of seeds, hours upon hours of research, engineering and re-engineering, thinking and re-thinking, observing, recording, interviews, and approximately 27 hours of footwork in Woodward's cemetery writing down the birth and death dates from every tombstone (there are 8000+ by the way)and then averaged the length of years lived for every ten year period. We may have gone overboard a few times, but Dirks kids have won their divisions or Grand Champion every year. EVERY YEAR. The first year Hannah was beaten out for Grand Champion was traumatic; for all of us. Even though she'd won her division, she was livid that she hadn't won the fair. She was like the spoiled private school girl of movies, "This is MY science fair." She wasn't kidding. She began planning for the next year almost immediately, sure that her superior planning and intellect would put her back on top. It did.

The last two years we have had three children doing science projects! This year Hannah did a research paper on global warming. Since she can drive herself to and from the library (YAY!) and write her own well thought out paper, all I had to do was proof read it. Addy was a little bit at a loss this year, but she researched some fun things on the computer and found a project she could be excited about. She dropped different objects in club soda and observed what happened. Some things floated, some things sank, and some things sank, floated to the top, then sank again, repeat. It wasn't a difficult project, but we tested a ridiculous variety of items so it took a while! Haddon's project, on the other hand, was a doozie! He wanted to build a catapult. Or, rather, he wanted to build several catapults...in different styles. I talked with him about what he hoped to learn by building these catapults and we came up with a project idea. He would build three different styles of (desktop, which was a huge compromise on his part) catapults, then launch marshmallows with them and see which one could launch them the furthest. We found plans for five different kinds online that we thought would be do-able and chose three. Somehow Jason didn't get that memo, however, and we ended up building four since he was under the assumption that we were making all five types we had researched. The building process took longer than we'd anticipated because...well, because it always does. We finally had all catapults made the night before everything was due, but we had yet to test them. So, the next morning at school, Haddon and I hung out in the gym after opening assembly and fired each catapult five times, measuring and recording each launch. It was fun! They all worked, two of them worked really well. I even sustained a war wound when Haddon let go of the tape measure before I was quite ready and when it recoiled my finger got in the way and was sliced. Then he got to go into his classroom and launch mini marshmallows into all of his classmates' mouths! I got to go to my office and superglue my finger.

I am loathe to tell my kids that they cannot do something for the science fair that they are truly interested in. I, often, have to fight the impulse to steer them, bully them, influence them that their project is too hard, too involved, not hard enough, or not the best way to test what they are eager to find out. I often grimace at their backboards when they are hand-written or crooked or when things have been glued on, pulled off, then re-adhered. But, I think it is sometimes those things that tip the judges of that these are projects that are actually thought up and done by the student, not his or her parents. True, I make myself very available to help in any way my kids need me, but it's their baby and it shows. I think it would be easier to choose for them. To check out a book or log on to a website and follow the step-by-step instructions found there. However, my kids LOVE their projects...and I am convinced that even though they might create a lot more work for themselves and their parents, they would not learn as much by doing a project they weren't excited about.

So, next year, bring it on. Life sized catapults, blood pressure cuffs, microscopes, Geiger counters...I'm game. But, for this year, I'm glad it's over!


NOBIAH said...

Science Fairs!
Get ready for this year's science fair with a MEET ME AT THE CORNER, Virtual Field trip to Baylor University to meet Janice VanCleave, the author of dozen of books about science and science fair projects. Young grace (age 11) learns about what goes into making an award winning science fair project.

MEET ME AT THE CORNER, Virtual Field Trips for Kids (www.meetmeatthecorner.org)
is a series of free educational video pod casts is directed at kids ages 7-12. Each three-minute episode includes links to fun websites, a list of recommended books and a Learning Corner of questions and extended activities about the topic.

Dawn said...

sounds fun! except for the tape measure cut...

Brooke said...

Em: I'm that way about Halloween now....I can't imagine how science fair will affect me!!! We'll have a dirks science fair bazarre in Scott....Ha.