“Hope is a verb with its shirtsleeves rolled up.” ~ David Orr
But these young scientists and engineers teach us something beyond the specific topics that they’re exploring. They teach us how to question assumptions; to wonder why something is the way it is, and how we can make it better. And they remind us that there’s always something more to learn, and to try, and to discover, and to imagine — and that it’s never too early, or too late to create or discover something new. ~ President Obama*
Today I served as a judge for the Science Fair at my grandson Zeb’s elementary school. My undergraduate nursing program demanded biology and chemistry. My degree in psychology and English, with professors who taught picking apart and focusing on one or two variables at a time, supposedly “qualifies” me in the social sciences. Mostly I qualify to review the children’s presentations with rubric in hand, because my son Matt serves as the parent volunteer coordinator for the Fair.
We judges love the process of reviewing the presentations of a few children in first through third grade, and over 100 4th and 5th graders who must submit a project. Each child or pair of children, prepare hypotheses and set-out to experiment, and/or research their idea. As each class comes into the gym the children are given a long white lab coat, have a group picture taken and then stand in front of their exhibit for an interview with a judge. We ask questions and offer verbal and written comments. After their interview the kids review their classmates’ projects with paper and pencil in hand for note taking.
The young scientists I interviewed included a boy measuring the speed of his Labrador retriever running for a tennis ball, a stuffed hedgehog and another toy. The dog was trained as a “drug sniffing” dog with a tennis ball so J. was certain he would run faster for the ball – and he did. Another boy tested dumping a Lego action figure down the stairs from a variety of containers to see if it broke apart. We talked about gravity and force. A girl made lava lamps with different oils and the fizzy candy Mentos. She made a light box so we could see the bubbles.She wasn’t sure about the idea of viscosity. A younger girl researched “what is the wood in trees?” After a large tree in her yard was felled by a windstorm she wondered…so she and her mom went to the library and borrowed 3 books. They used celery in colored water to to demonstrate sap rising in the wood. She labeled each layer of the tree in her own handwriting. Twirling my bracelet and distracted by her mates, she tried hard to focus to explain the project to me.
Kids’ experiments are messy. Eggs soaked in vinegar stink; exploding coke with Mentos candy is sticky. Presenting a project poster can be a challenge. Young children’s handwriting is special, and computer generated auto-spellings are hit and miss. My favorites were, “first we built a Lego bride,” or, “my concussion was…” Whoops.
Zeb and a friend, both 4th graders, powered a car with soda pop and Mentos. Friction of the board they placed the “car” on prevented it from traveling.
Later in the day all the judges walk through the exhibit discussing each project, awarding ribbons for participation and a few special ribbons for outstanding projects – the hardest task. We talked about the beauty of a simple ah-ha turned to question and drawn to a clear conclusion.
One hundred and fifty children from 5 to 11 years old, encouraged by teachers and parents to question and explore, give me hope for our world.
Matt and Fiona, Marine Biologists, work hard with the lead teacher to assure the success of the fair.