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 electromagnet stronger?"

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 days left.

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 days left.

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, dontcha Dad?"

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 left.

Sunday, no messing around this time, straight to work in our jammies. Graphics are done and pasted up on the board, looks great. Experimental "Method," 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

GrouchyOldMan gives excellent advice for parents trying to survive a science fair (advice I certainly couldn't give, but sure could use); but what about for the guinea-pig-in-a-maze-puppet-master? What about the kid whose Baking Soda powered Mount St. Helens showed none of the fury of the volcano gods? Never fear. I did my share of science fairs beginning in Fifth Grade and learned from my mistakes, enough so that by my senior year of High School, I had won three computers, a handful of trophies, and trips throughout the United States. Later I became a judge for a lot of science fairs, including becoming an executive member of the Physics Committee for Science Olympiad.

My first piece of advice to you is simple: Don't Worry. Science is supposed to be fun. The purpose of the science fair is not to punish the kids, but to let them discover science on their own terms.

Now that we have all the worrying out of our system, let's decide how we want to approach this science fair. Do we want to survive the science fair, learn something, have some fun, and maybe win a ribbon, or do we want to thrive at the science fair, trying to win the Best of Show category? Both are admirable goals, which is why I love science fairs. The only loser of the science fair is the kid who has dad build the entire project the night before, has no fun, and doesn't learn anything.

Tips for surviving at a Science Fair:

  • Choose a project that has a question that has been bugging you lately. Make sure you can express the problem as a question. This will make your life easier. Even better is a problem where you can measure something. If you choose a question that interests you, you will find it's easier to carry out your experiment because you will want to know the answer yourself. Some websites will have project ideas. If you find a question that interests you, and you don't have an answer, you're halfway home with the scientific method according to Feynman.
  • Learn what the scientific method is, then follow it. The condensed version is:
    1. Define a problem, and ask a Question
    2. Make a hypothesis
    3. Create an experiment to test the hypothesis and repeat it many times
    4. Collect the data, then interpret it in terms of your hypotheis.
    5. Confirm or refute your hypothesis
  • Start early, plan ahead and stick to the plan. To do your experiment well you need many trials. To perform many trials takes time. Additionally, some experiments require lots of time, like running out batteries, herding rodents for intelligence tests, and growing plants. Finally, you will need time to make your presentation. If you wait until the last moment, you will not be having fun, and your final product will show this. Enlist the help of mom and dad to stay on schedule if you must, but...
  • Don't let Mom and Dad get too involved with your project. Certainly, there will be some things with which you need help. Operating workshop machinery (especially unsupervised) is a no-no for kiddies, for example. But if your parents build your machine, the judges will know, your grade will drop, and you won't be the one having the fun with the project.
  • What if the project doesn't work?! I thought we worked out all of the worries earlier. If it doesn't work, don't sweat it. I got a Distinguished Project award (the highest award at the New York State Science Congress on a project that was knackered. The key is to be able to explain why it didn't work, and how you will alter the project the next time so it does work. No one expects you to always guess right on your hypothesis every time. Failure is part of eventually getting to a successful experiment, and many times teaches more than a lucky guess.

Tips for thriving at a science fair:

  • Know the scientific method inside and out, and be able to define your control, dependant and independant variables, as well as a conclusion. Stick tightly to the method in your project, and during the presentation, emphasize things you did to follow the method.
  • Consider about reading up on statistical analysis. Of course you will need to know averages and graphing. Everyone will have averages and graphs. You will too as part of your data section. But you also need to consider the relevance of your data. And nothing impresses the judges like a kid who knows how to do Chi-square tests and ANOVA tests, and uses them in the project when appropriate.
  • Practice delivering the presentation to everyone and anyone. Practice in front of the dog and the mirror. Practice answering unexpected questions about minute details because the judges want to see how well you can think on your toes, not just repeat a script. Oh yeah, and don't worry. Judges are nice guys who just want to see how much you learned. And you learned a lot, right?
  • Make eye contact with the judges. It makes them feel like you feel confident. Staring at the lights above makes them feel like you're trying to remember the script that dad wrote for you last night.
  • Make your presentation interesting, and attract attention. How do you do that? Simple. Make the presentation neat and proper. Make it easy to read. Use colored graphs. Don't use small type size. Use a computer as much as possible in construction of the presentation. Glue or tack it neatly. Make borders and bold, large labels for each step of the scientific method. And most importantly, try to have something hands-on for your presentation, especially something that your fellow students can try out. Your apparatus works well. Models are nice. Demonstrations of the experiment are really nice. The one thing that is not a good idea is live animals. For some reason they get really nervous, make a mess, and never perform when you want them to. Most importantly, your fellow students are not likely to treat your pets with respect.

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