Science fairs: not just for kids

By Theresa Wells

There aren’t many words that throw me into a state of trepidation similar to the kind experienced at the dentist’s office just prior to a root canal. In fact there are very few, but there is one two-word combination that does it every time. The two words are innocent enough separately, but tie them together and they are enough to strike fear into the heart of every parent: science fair.

Okay, I get that science fair projects are great for kids as they incorporate learning and fun, plus an opportunity to display what they have learned. They help students to practice the scientific approach to a problem and from an educational point of view they are incredibly beneficial. From a parental point of view, though, the pesky science fair is cause enough to lose sleep, as no matter how independent the project or your kid is, at some point you as a parent are getting dragged into it.

My daughter loves science. Her science fair projects in the past have included testing commercial glues versus home made. As this was one of her very first projects my role was buy as many kinds of commercial glues as I could find and then stick pieces of felt together so she could test them and compare the glues in terms of hold and strength. While this may seem simple enough I lost at least one pair of jeans to the testing when somehow several strips of felt were glued to them (using the glue that turned out to be the strength winner, of course). My house also smelled like glue for weeks, leading me to harbour deep concerns that the dog seemed a bit high and my memory a bit low, and I feared chemical-induced loss of brain cells.

She won an award and cash for that one, as I recall. I believe she bought a bicycle, and while the dog and I eventually recovered I think collectively we lost in brain power what she gained in cash.

Another memorable project involved the construction of a wind tunnel. While her father constructed the tunnel my job was to buy hundreds of drinking straws to regulate air flow and then find a way to fit thousands of straws into a sheet metal tube and not have them fly out the second air was blown through it. After many attempts and dodging straws that came shooting out of the tube I managed to secure several hundred straws inside rubber bands and then wedge them inside the tube.

I still have nightmares about the process, and to this day we have enough straws that when I am in an old age retirement home and unable to drink from a glass my family will be able to provide my drinking straws (for me and my entire floor of elderly compatriots, in fact).

This year her project involves Plaster of Paris. A lot of Plaster of Paris, enough that I suspect the guys at the local home reno store are beginning to wonder what exactly I am doing with the crates of Plaster of Paris that I am trundling home on a regular basis.

When we bought the Plaster of Paris she read the box and noted several things, like it potentially causing eye irritation, lung irritation and even lung cancer if you inhale the dust. Shortly after that she determined my job would be to mix the Plaster of Paris powder with water, as clearly she calculated I already have fewer years left than her and if anyone was going to get lung cancer it wasn’t going to be her. She insisted on proper PPE, including a respirator mask, gloves and safety glasses, which she conscientiously wears while she stands a hundred feet away while I mix litre upon litre of gooey white stuff.

So far I have sacrificed two pairs of pants to the plaster gods, one pair of safety glasses that fell into the mix, several dozen pairs of gloves and I am pretty sure I should talk to my doctor about a chest x-ray to detect silicosis because my respirator mask keeps slipping off.

I can’t reveal the details of her project, although she claims it is going well and she is pleased with the progress. Her minions however (meaning me and the cats who observe this from afar) are sort of wishing this was just over already. And the home reno guys are probably wondering if I have developed some sort of new way to cook drugs using Plaster of Paris, because there seems to be no other explanation for my insatiable need for more.

So science fair projects: not just fun for kids but for the entire family. After all, the family that inhales Plaster of Paris dust together stays together, right? Or some such saying, I don’t recall as ever since that glue project I don’t remember much of anything, really. And it’s probably a very good thing, because it means every year I forget about the science fair right until she comes home with the log book and my eye begins twitching as I think: “Here we go again.”

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