Looking back on it, I believe that my wife smiled that odd smirky little
smile of hers when the subject of our kid's science fair came up. In fact I
remember it clearly, she was in the process of making a suggestion for some
science project she thought might be appropriate when I interrupted her with the
nonchalant comment that I had a plan. That was the day before she left for two
months on a schooner in the Caribbean. That smile haunts me lately.
I've known that I'd be assuming the role of Mr. Science for a few months and
thought I had it well under control. Last year we did the whole damned thing in
two days flat. "Does Salt Really Help Melt Snow?1" was a raging success
so I guess I was feeling cocky.
The original concept was to look at the relationship between electricity and
magnetism. We were going to study a bit then demonstrate electromagnetism, electric motors and
electric generators. Eventually that was pared down to what
I thought was a simple question, "What makes a stronger
electromagnet," and even that proved to be daunting quagmire of snarling
complexity. Therein lies a tale of child psychology, parental arrogance and the
startling weakness of the scientific method.
The studying part went really well, I checked out a stack of books from the
library, doled out reading assignments (for simplicity both kids were doing
variations on the same theme) then they'd do reports on what they'd read and
we'd have a discussion. At the end, they would write up notes on what they'd
learned for their notebooks. So far so good.
Then came the "experimenting" stage and that's where I started down
the way-wrong path. I'd cleverly searched the web for cool science fair projects
and found a couple of doozies involving electro-mag topics. They were so cool
that I regressed to my 12 year old mad scientist stage. Like a kid with a fat
wallet, I immediately dashed out and dropped a wad of cash at Radio Shack on
wire and batteries and lamps and switches and other useful looking stuff.
It was like Christmas that night when we examined our new treasures! My son
was especially entranced with the pile of powerful magnets. I had to tackle him
enroute to my computer room hell-bent on checking the magnetic properties of
everything in sight. Close call. Rule number one: absolutely no magnets allowed
near the computer. NEVER, NO EXCUSES!!
With a stack of parts in hand we proceeded to blow the entire month making bitchin
gizmotronic stuff. Electromagnets, motors, generators... Wires,
batteries, light bulbs everywhere. Some of it worked, some of it didn't, some of
it wasn't even supposed to.
Way way fun tho. The most impressive product were the Beakman's Motors2, the
world's coolest electric motor. I'd found them on the web and just knew that we
had to build them. The entire parts list consists of a D-cell battery, two paper
clips, a ceramic magnet, a rubber band and two feet of copper wire. Simple,
elegant and too bitchin for words. We each made one and had contest after
contest who's can run the longest, fastest, strongest... Everybody won and the
prize was ice cream. Isn't science fun!
Then one day I looked up and realized that we only had a week left until the
Science Fair. "We'd better get focused here," says I. That was the
moment I realized that for all of our efforts, we weren't one step closer to
fulfilling the assignment. I dug out the handouts their teacher's had provided
so long ago and was confronted with some pretty specific requirements. I had one
of those sobering moments where I remembered in a flash, exactly what it was
that I didn't like about school!
I looked up to find two concerned little faces staring at me; "you've
got this under control doncha Dad?" "Yeah, sure, no probs..." I
took a deep breath, reviewed everything we'd done so far and.... picked the
simplest, most straightforward problem I could think of "What makes an
Easy, we'd just make a few simple coils and measure how many whatzits they
could each pick up, graph the results and this sucker would be in the bag. We've
got a plan here, forward march!
My son had the idea to make a test frame out of K'nex, which are sort of a
French erector set. Great idea, where do we start? Lots of fun, try this, try
that, build some Knex race cars for awhile, work on the frame, both kids get
bored and leave Dad to finish, Dad gets pissed and demands that both kids come
back and stand around helplessly and watch Dad finish it... Stress enters the
picture and rears its ugly head. Maybe science isn't so much fun after all. Five
The frame is done and looking good. My son has named it the "Electromagnetron"
which sounds like a Japanese movie monster. We're all smiling again, science is
great fun. Another trip to Radio Shack, more parts, time to make the
electromagnets. More fun, measuring wire, wrapping, picking up paperclips for
his version of the project, graphing the results, looking good here. More
rigorous data collection for my daughter's project. The data looks OK, more
batteries, or more coils on the magnets means more BB's. Not as clean as we'd
like, but looking pretty good. Everyone is smiling. More days slip by, three
Friday evening, projects due Monday. No problem, but it's time to get
serious, in fact, there's quite a bit to do here, but we've got plenty of time.
Friday night, pizza and movies, we always do pizza and movies on Friday night,
plenty of time for science fair tomorrow, plenty of time. Two days left.
Saturday morning, breakfast, "Field Day," housecleaning, allowance
distributions and accounting, lunch time. One and one half days left.
Saturday afternoon, Science Fair time for sure. We're psyched to get this
done. Brother just needs some graphics for his poster board, daughter needs to work
on her write-up, graphics and her verbal presentation. Immediate problem neither
kid can work for more than a few minutes without a question, Dad is constantly
switching context and he isn't as good at that as he used to be. Mr. Stress is
back with a vengeance, kids are nervous, "You DO have this UNDER CONTROL,
Finally, mercifully, my son's project is done and he disappears downstairs to
study his Calvin and Hobbes comics. I take a look at what my daughter has been
doing and immediately realize that she hasn't gotten it at all! In fact it's as
if somebody else had participated in all our events for the last month and she'd
just arrived from Mars this morning. She and I are speaking completely different
languages here and have no common ground. She thinks the batteries have
magnetism in them that it flows into the coils when you press the switch! We
have a sobering moment of quiet and look at each other in complete wonderment.
Mr. Stress has invited his pal Dr. Panic to the party.
I can tell she's really upset. This science fair project is a big thing for
her and she has trusted me to keep her on track and it's not working out. I
cradle her in a hug and we both take slow deep breaths. She's almost ten years
old, a fact that amazes me daily, but in my arms she feels like a little kid,
worried and needy. I take my time thinking this through. The next words are
going to be important, and we'd better both get them right.
"OK, darling, let's just start over again from scratch, get out your
notebook." Thank God for the notebooks. A calm, methodical review and it's
all starting to come back. "The magnetism isn't in the battery Dad, electrons are in the
battery and they travel through the wire like soldiers on
the march and THAT makes the magnetic field..." YES! Good start but there's
lots to do here.
We each go back to work, me on the presentation graphics, my daughter on the
experimental procedure and results. Compare notes in an hour and everything is
looking much better, this is going to be OK after all. Ten o'clock, bedtime for
sure, good progress, but we'll have to hit it early the next morning. One day
Sunday, no messing around this time, straight to work in our jammies.
Graphics are done and pasted up on the board, looks great. Experimental
needs minor corrections, some weakness in the "Conclusions" section
that we need to take a longer look at, but overall it's coming along. Time to
start working on the verbal presentation.
Problems. She doesn't know where to start. OK, just look at your write up and
put it into words. My little actress is finding this her most challenging role
yet. As she put it "When I'm acting Dad, I have a script, here I really
have to think!" I can see the problem, she doesn't have a path to follow
through all the things we've done. Together we work up a rough outline for the
talk and she goes back to work. I'm gonna take a harder look at those inconsistencies
in the data so I can help her with the conclusions section.
More problems, beyond the most cursory examination, the data totally sucks!
On the grossest level, more batteries or more coils make the magnet stronger,
you pick up more BB's, fine. But when you look closely, there are bizarre
anomalies here going from one battery to two batteries increases the BB count by
500%, but going from two batteries to four batteries only increases the count by
150%, what gives?
After a lot of head scratching I remembered something about "magnetic
saturation," meaning that in some cases, an electromagnet won't get much
stronger no matter how much power you apply to it, or how many coils it has.
Damned if that doesn't look like what we've got here. Leave it to me to choose
just the right wire lengths and nail size to straddle some weird physical
boundary. The more I looked at it, the more obvious it became. I could hear
Stress and Panic slapping each other on the back and chortling. How's SHE doing?
She says she's ready and I settle down with my son to play audience.
"My science fair project looked at electromagnetism. The question we asked
was..." Seconds go bye, a full horrible quiet minute... Full lock up, the
deer-in-the-headlights look in her eyes. Oh Shit!
Brother splits to watch a video, another long hug for stage-fright annie. I'm
rambling on to her about my problems with the data. Then we look at each other
perplexed, how could this be happening to us? Smiles, then Zen laughter, Science
sucks, let's take a break.
Over the course of the evening we managed to turn the verbal presentation
into a set piece of theater and now she is breezing through it with a modicum of
confidence. Go kid go.
The results are the results and we're presenting them in all their tattered
anomalous glory. When you get right down to it, this really is what science is
like. Getting clean results requires all sorts of juggling and fancy dancing
that make you feel a little bit like a fake. Even when you're sure the results
are valid, you are doing a bit of a sales job.
My wife's father, who actually is a rocket scientist says that the finest
measurements anyone is capable of making are increments of time, which are
recorded with an accuracy of 14 decimal places. One can imagine the shenanigans
required for that kind of precision. More like stage magic than science. I'd
like to squander some time on a philosophical rant about the scientific method,
but it's nine PM Sunday evening. 12 hours and counting.
This morning it all came together. She "dreamed about the part"
and woke up poised and confident. She practiced on brother and I and she nailed
it. We're happy again. I delivered Electromagnetron to her classroom for the big
show. The comments from each kid who arrived leads me to believe that she's
going to do just fine "Wow is that cool", "What can it do?",
"Can I help you show it?"
Next year I'm going to make sure my spouse is home for Science Fair.
PS. Afternoon update: It went beautifully! It's Miller Time...
1Does salt help melt ice?: Yes.
2 Beakman's Electric Motor instructions: http://fly.hiwaay.net/~palmer/motor.html