Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Science Fairs and School Boards

My local school board continues to impress me. Last night the gym at TB's school was partitioned right down the middle: science fair on one side, school budget election on the other. Get the parents to show up for their kids' science fair projects, and by the way, have them vote. (I brought TG in the booth with me, and had her press the 'cast vote' button. TW did the same with TB. Model those habits early!) Since these elections typically come down to parental turnout, it's a savvy move.

These people are not stupid. Though I would have picked a day other than April 15 to ask the voters to approve a tax increase.

TB and TW put together a pretty nifty science fair project. It was about how continents form, and how the shifting tectonic plates give rise to mountains and volcanoes and earthquakes. He picked out a red display board – since it reminded him of lava – and wrote every word that went on it. For a visual aid, he had a couple of pounds of uncooked rice in a tupperware cake pan, with play-doh 'continents' on top of the rice. By smushing the continents together, he could get one to break – causing ridges or mountains – or get one to go under the other, approximating 'subduction' which leads eventually to volcanoes (since the continent that goes under is melted by the heat at the middle of the earth).

For a while, it became The Project That Ate Pittsburgh. At one point, in exasperation, TW declared to TB “when you win the Nobel Prize, you'd better thank me.” Earnestly, TB responded “I will, and then we'll go to dinner!”

Details are everything. The first version used sand instead of rice, but the sand stuck to the play-doh, turning it all beige, and contributing to an aesthetically displeasing “kitty litter” effect. And using two different colors of play-doh for the clashing continents made the effect much more compelling.

TB chose this topic himself, since it combines two of his favorite things: earthquakes and volcanoes. He did some background reading, and even discovered some fun facts. (Did you know that Mount Everest gets two inches taller every year? I didn't.) And by showtime, he could give a lucid, accurate, and gratifyingly poised explanation of how tectonic plates shift, and why it matters. He even gave a presentation to his class, utterly unfazed by public speaking. That's my boy!

From looking at the other projects, this year's theme was baking soda volcanoes. There were also plenty of crystal-formation experiments, and several having to do with eggs. The cleverest was a demonstration of how a Zamboni works. The kid (and parents) brought in a block of ice in a cooler. They used a round pizza slicer to cut grooves in the ice, like hockey players' skates do. Then they used a squeegee to wipe off the shavings. They used a baster to squirt warm water on the surface of the ice, then used the squeegee again to remove the excess. I had to give credit for not just doing yet another baking soda volcano.

(There seems to be a faddishness to some of these things. Last year, tornadoes-in-soda-bottles were big. I didn't see any of those this year.)

A few of his friends were there, little siblings in tow, so TB was in his glory. TG mostly hung around me, though she did play with the little siblings a bit.

As it ended, we went out to dinner to celebrate. It wasn't anything grand, but I could see TB basking in the realization that this was about him. When you're six, the whole family going out to celebrate what you did is a Very Big Deal. And rightly so. We could tell it was a big night when we got home and he went directly to bed without even trying to wheedle an extra story or two. The poor kid was wiped.

Not bad for a Tuesday.

Sounds like a great start to a science career! Well done, TB!

Though he's a little young for it, okay - maybe not - he may like Assembling California by John McPhee. It is "all about" islands hitting mainlands and forming mountain ranges, kind of like the Indian subcontinent hitting Asia to form the Himalayas. (Interesting factoid about Everest, by the way.) I saw "all about" since McPhee's writing is never really about any one thing.

Feel free to call me in when TB needs another visit from a practicing scientist.
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