Wednesday, April 14, 2010


The Boy Rocks the Science Fair

The Boy has his mother's spatial sense and a touch of my nerdiness, so he was all over the science fair.

He loves bridges and earthquakes, so this year he decided to do a project that combined them. His project involved building bridges of two different designs -- 'beam' and 'suspension' -- and subjecting both of them to simulated earthquakes while supporting weight. The idea was to see whether one design would hold up better than the other.

It takes a village to do a science fair project.

First was the design phase. Both bridges feature two vertical supports and a 'road' that connects them, all made of wood. The suspension bridge includes additional vertical supports holding up the twine arches on either side. From each twine arch, he hung strings that went under the road and connected to the twine arch on the other side. His hypothesis was that the additional support would help the suspension bridge hold up better.

The "shake table" was the cool part. TW took TB to Home Depot, where I think we should get the frequent-customer discount by now, and got two 2 foot by 2 foot squares of wood and two huge rubber bands. She took four rubber balls, about an inch in diameter, from one of TG's old games, put them between the squares, and held the sandwich together with the rubber bands. Once the sandwich was assembled, you could simulate an earthquake by pulling the top layer an inch or two toward you, and letting go. It's basically a slingshot effect. The idea was to put each bridge on the shake table in sequence, and to see at what weight each would break while moving.

Then came the test phase. Experienced parents can guess what happened here.

Balsa wood is a lot stronger than it looks.

Thinking back to the cheesy toy airplanes of my youth, I assumed that a couple of cans of beans would do the job. Not so. Even stacking four cans across and two cans high didn't do it; all that happened was that the top layer went flying when the earthquake hit. Then we tried one-liter water bottles; no dice. We tried books, but they had to be stacked with the title page vertical in order to fit between the strings on the suspension bridge, which made stacking them impossible. (Surprisingly, even my monstrous American Heritage Dictionary couldn't get the job done.)

We didn't have any spare steel weights lying around -- anvils aren't nearly as common as years of cartoons had led me to believe -- so we did the next best thing: call my old high school chemistry lab partner. (He's a named professor of engineering now, so it wasn't quite as silly as it sounds.) He suggested planing the road thinner, which would have made sense if I had a plane and much greater mechanical skills than I actually have. He also mentioned something about a torque wrench, but that fell victim to the same objection. Finally, he suggested putting 'wings' across the road so it could hold larger objects, but TB vetoed that on the grounds that bridges don't have wings.

The kid has a solid grasp on the obvious.

For lack of any better ideas, I resorted to the last gasp of desperate Dads everywhere: let's take it outside! Admittedly, there wasn't a second step to the plan, but I figured that if we had to stack a third level of cans, at least they wouldn't dent the kitchen table when they went airborne.

Luckily, we found a few hunks of brick lying around for no visible reason. A few earthquakes later, victory! The beam bridge collapsed, but the suspension bridge held the same weight. It took three bricks, but we got the job done, and the driveway survived. And through the miracles of digital photography and cheap printers, we could even show each step on the display board.

Happily for us, TW had the foresight to have TB build two of each kind of bridge, so he had unbroken ones to display at the science fair. The display was a hit, and it was fun to see the fashion trend. In past years, volcanoes and "how high can I drop this egg" were huge; this year's trend was food spoilage. Several kids did variations on "which storage unit lets food spoil faster?" Those experiments are elegant in their design, but you don't really want to display spoiled food, so they lose something in translation. At least with construction, you have something to show. (My all-time favorite is still the build-your-own-Zamboni.) The obligatory baking soda volcano was there, but I was glad to see it relegated to the margins.

TB won a ribbon and beamed with pride as he explained his experiment to passersby. We celebrated with ice cream and a gloating call to Grandpa. The Girl was jealous that she couldn't participate -- for reasons unknown, they set the entry at first grade -- but I suspect she'll give him a run for his money next year.

This may not sound like much, but as an academic Dad, this is a clean win. The Boy rocked the science fair, and all is right with the world.

congrats, (Dean) Dad!
Great thinking on the shake table. What a well-done experiment.

*Love* science fair. A high point of our year.
I want to be Dean Dad when I grow up.
What a great experiment! Congratulations on your boy's ribbon.

Ah, science fairs. My parents didn't go to college; in fact, Mom didn't even finish high school. They both worked blue collar service jobs. There was never extra money to buy display boards, I always used to try and cut them out of cardboard boxes. In sum, my science fair projects always looked exactly like what a 7 year old of average intelligence could accomplish on her own. Meaning they were terrible. Terrible! It was actually really discouraging - though I do think the concept behind science fairs (have children do experiments and talk about them) is sound.

Anyway. I swear, half the reason I married an overeducated engineer was to have someone to help the kids with their science fair projects!
In the next year or three (if not now), your kid would probably enjoy going here

and installing the software on your computer to see what he can design in something that resembles the "real world". Each year's contest software has different constraints, so there are lots of problems there to solve.
That is something to be proud of. Congratulations!
Good for TB - and his parents.

I wish there was a way to even the playing field so that all kids could have the good experience your son had, even though their parents lack the resources you and your wife have.
Actually, some bridges do have wings. For example, they added wings to the Queensboro Bridge in NYC. It was never a beautiful bridge, but with two traffic tiers, wide wings and an elevator that used to link it to Welfare, now Roosevelt, Island, it has acquired a certain clunkiness. It is also known as the 59th Street Bridge and was immortalized in the Simon and Garfunkel song, Feeling Groovy. Maybe the wings weren't that bad an idea.
I've crossed the Queensboro more than once, but I can't take credit for suggesting wings out of any connection to real life. As DD mentioned, I was just thinking about ways to pile on more weights so they wouldn't fall off. Did TB ever try adding more bricks to see what it would take to collapse the suspension bridge?

Now that we know that the standard balsa road can hold a few layers of cans, here are some ideas for next year. Which structure during an earthquake is better at holding the cans so they don't fall down? It's a way to combine the excitement of destruction with a way to dent the kitchen table, the tiles, and the gym floor at the science fair.

Congrats to TB for a nice project.
Good work. What a great read!
This is inspirational stuff! Thanks for posting.
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