Smokin' Science Projects

Apr 3, 2014

Credit Susan Messina

There’s an image that’s gone viral on the internet—spreading through social media and in-boxes around the world. This hand-made poster looks like it’s done as a real project, by a real child.  It poses the question, “How much turmoil does the science fair cause families?”  And then there’s the answer, weighing materials, results and findings.  Charlottesville-essayist Deborah Prum explains her family’s approach to Science Fair Day.

One day, my seventh grade physical sciences teacher announced mandatory participation in a science fair.  Up to the day before the event, I hadn’t prepared.  Hadn’t determined a research question.  Hadn’t developed a hypothesis and definitely had not come to any conclusions. In my mind, the scientific method seemed constraining and not nearly as entertaining as magical thinking.

My father came to the rescue, not in an entirely ethical way, but he saved the day, nonetheless. Dad worked in a ball bearing factory. The evening of the science fair, my father brought home a small, grease-covered compressor, the size of a shoebox.  Beggars cannot be choosers and procrastinators are among the most desperate beggars. So, I happily toted my little pseudo-project to the school auditorium.

I don’t remember what I listed as my research question or how I framed my hypothesis.  All I know is that my conclusion became evident to all:  when you plug in an old compressor with a frayed cord covered with electrical tape, putrid smoke pours from the machine, after which you hear a sizzling sound followed by the compressor ceasing to function.  I don’t remember my grade, and I don’t remember getting into trouble for bringing in a project that obviously was Not My Own Work.

Fast forward to the present.  My three sons are nine years apart, which means I’ve had to endure lots of dreaded science fairs.  After my scarring junior high experience—my conscience still bothers me--I decided we Prums would run a clean operation.  My children would design and implement projects on their own.  

The boys approached the task with frenzied optimism. Many of the projects involved my freezer.  One boy froze crickets he’d gotten as bait. Another kept it simpler; he froze dirt. I’m not kidding.  I had a freezer full of little bits of dirt. Our youngest son devised a project that involved gluing beans on white construction paper.

So, on science fair days, some projects looked as if a NASA engineer designed them. Others sported handwriting that definitely did not originate from an eight-year-old hand. However, most projects bore the marks of a child’s ingenuity and exuberance, including the Prum contribution which usually displayed lots more enthusiasm than sense.  No need to post a No help given or received on this project.  Our sons obviously had not consulted any sane person and constructed the projects entirely on their own.

We require children to participate in science fairs to encourage experimentation.  Not a great idea for the Prum boys.  Their school projects involved safe items: dirt, crickets and beans, whereas the home experiments usually involved explosives.  One son temporarily lost his hearing after accidently detonating the black powder he’d collected from Mexican firecrackers. Another time, a boy removed ants from the mailbox by using a Butane lighter and an aerosol bug spray which resulted in a flaming mailbox.

Regarding science fairs, there’s no doubt: honesty is the best policy. Yet, after considering the exploding firecrackers, flaming mailbox and smoking compressor, when it comes to my family and our scientific inquiries, the very best policy might be excellent insurance coverage with a substantial rider for fire-related incidents.

Click here for the back story on the science fair poster.   Deborah Prum's website is here.