Monday, April 16, 2007


Of Basepaths and Science Fairs

On Saturday, prior to the repent-your-sins storm of Sunday, our local minor league baseball team had its fan appreciation day to inaugurate the season. (Regular readers know that I consider minor league baseball one of life's great pleasures.) There wasn't an actual game per se, but they did have some local guys in uniform play one to keep the fans entertained. The vendors were out in full force, the kids made off with plenty of good (if branded) swag, the weather was mostly cooperative, the mascots made the rounds, parking and admission were free, and I got a sunburn.

Mine are a pasty people.

The highlight, though, came at the end, when they let the kids in attendance run the bases. I knew The Boy could handle it, and he did, making pretty good time as he passed kids between second and third. But I wasn't sure about The Girl. She's still only two, and I'm not sure she has any concept of basepaths. And those basepaths look awfully long when you're awfully short.

I needn't have worried. Bless her little heart, she chugged around the bases like she invented them. Her style of running is unique – her arms don't move, but her curls do – and you don't often see someone in an orange fleece hoodie motoring around third like that. She even stayed on the basepath when she saw Mommy in the stands, which I thought would be the acid test. She crossed home plate with a huge smile and even a little arm-pump, signifying victory. I assumed a catcher's squat behind the plate and high-fived her as she crossed. The season may now begin.

The big milestone for The Boy this week is his first science fair. His teacher sent home a little guidance sheet for the experiments and write-ups (the question you're answering, the procedure, the observations, the conclusion) that TB found as tedious to write up as I always did. (I was in grad school before I realized nobody actually does science that way. Had I known these awful reports were just the anal-retentive artifacts of control-freak elementary educators, I might have embraced science much more. My duty here is clear...)

Since TB didn't really have a concept of 'experiment' yet, I allowed myself to intervene more than I usually would. I thought it would be more useful for him to do something that shows something like logic, rather than the usual baking-soda volcano. So we got out a little racetrack apparatus he got as a toy a couple of years ago. It has parallel twisty tracks and a single starter, so you can have two cars race each other to the bottom. The experiment has five 'heats' with the gold car on the left and the silver on the right, then five more with the cars switched; the idea is to see if winning is a function of a faster car or a faster track. (For the record, the same car won every race, regardless of track.)

We set it up on the dining room table on Sunday, and TB had a blast running the races and recording the results. He was less excited about his little writeup, but he saw it through. TW and I even played 'teacher' a few times, and asked him to explain his little experiment. He eventually got it, and even corrected stupid questions we asked.

I don't give two hoots about him 'winning' – I'm not even sure they do that anymore – but I'm psyched to see him start to figure out how to figure things out. Epistemology starts early, I say. If we can get some basic critical thinking going on, I have to hope that good things will eventually follow.

Warming my heart, he confided on Saturday that he's torn. Part of him wants to be a builder when he grows up, and part of him wants to be an artist. I told him he could do both by being an architect. He knows what an architect is, since he has a book called Roberto the Insect Architect about a termite who likes to build buildings, rather than eat them. He thought that was just about the coolest idea ever, and immediately set about building an impressively elaborate airport with legos. As my long-suffering family can attest, I have the spatial sense of Mr. Magoo, but my father-in-law has the gift. (Remember those aptitude tests from 8th grade? I crashed and burned on the section where they drew an unfolded box and asked you what it would look like folded up. Later, geometry was a bloodbath. Jigsaw puzzles are torture. To this day, I'm completely useless when asked a question like “how would this chair look, against that wall?” TW is a very patient woman.) If TB has the gift too, I say good for him, and hooray for genetic diversity.

Science, baseball, and young children. Sometimes, all is right with the world.

My major accomplishment this weekend was finding out that, why yes, the dorky physics-and-chemistry professor type CAN have a great deal of fun with the three middle school girls who are spending the day together to celebrate my eldest daughter's birthday. (Mind you, since we are in Georgia, Dairy Queen does help with morale when prof-dad gets TOO dorky.)

And it really took a wild turn when we started talking about the algorithms that they use to make the suitcase offers on Deal Or No Deal. Yes, the algorithms. I kid you not. I think I actually had their attention for three minutes, which at that age, is a MASSIVE accomplishment.

Of course, the dark realization after a day like that is how many kids of that age DON'T have adults who care about them and are willing to take the time...
The Girl's running without moving her arms reminds me of someone: her daddy.

Young DD used to walk without swinging his arms at all; they'd hang loose at his sides. It drove our father nuts. "How can you do that?" he'd ask, more astonished than anything else.

(To tease Dad, DD would then swing his arms wrongly. Rather than "left foot forward, right hand forward," he'd step "left foot forward, left hand forward." It looks so very wrong, but it takes a second to figure out why.)
Excellent design of a fun lab experiment!

I can see a followup in which you use cars that are as identical as possible on two different tracks. What if the gold and silver cars were going backwards? What if each car then hit a second car on the track at the bottom, and then the race was between those second cars? (This would show momentum transfer.)
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