• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Scenes from the Science Fair

Young inventors.


April 30, 2015

The Girl is in the fifth grade, and her school covers grades five and six. Thursday night was the science fair. Parental duty called.

TG wanted to invent something, so she asked her grandparents what they needed. Grandma has a cat whose toys sometimes roll under the couch, and her knees make it difficult to get down there to retrieve them. She asked TG for something that would help her retrieve errant cat toys from under the couch.

TG invented a “Magna-Pole,” which is a pair of sticks with a hinge that allows them to fold together flat or to form an L shape. The bottom of the L has several magnets attached to it.  If the cat loses toys with magnets in them, Grandma can use the Magna-Pole to sweep under the couch and pull the toys out. (Naturally, the Magna-Pole comes with several magnetic balls.)  

TG did the requisite tri-fold cardboard display, including a large photo of Grandma’s cat for context. Through the miracle of digital photography, it’s easy now to include “making of” photos, offering a storyboard effect. Then, TG had to develop and rehearse her pitch, so she could explain to passersby (and judges) the problem she was trying to solve, and the way her invention solved it.

At TG’s school, the science fair occurs after school, and is entirely optional. Probably about 40 kids participated, either solo or in pairs. Girls far outnumbered boys, which wasn’t true in earlier grades.

Any middle school science fair has some mainstays. Yes, the inevitable baking soda volcanoes were there. Two girls came up with a clever variation on it, though. They built a “Rube Goldberg Machine” that looked like something out of the old Mousetrap game. (It involved dominoes, ramps, and a pair of matchbox cars.)  The final step of the contraption involved dunking a matchbox dumptruck filled with baking soda into a bucket full of vinegar. I had to give them credit for flair.

A couple of kids brought in dry ice, which brought back memories of music videos from the 80’s. I have no idea where they got it, but it would have seemed churlish to ask. A few did optical illusions, including one who did her entire display on the dress that was either white and gold or blue and black. Soda showed its Janus face: one experiment showed how it corrodes teeth, while another showed how well it cleaned coins. But far too many just did explanatory displays, which I always find a little boring. Invent something, test something, just do something. Otherwise it feels like a book report.

The judges were “undercover,” milling about among the parents and not using clipboards. TG reported that many of the kids probably thought I was one, which would explain why they seemed so eager to explain their displays to me. I chose to take that as a compliment.

School science fairs are affirming. The kids are visibly proud of what they’ve done, and they should be. Hearing ten-year-olds give prepared talks about hypotheses and procedures is unexpectedly charming. They manage to be simultaneously eager and bored. 

It would have been nice to see more of the kids there, and maybe not just the usual suspects, but I’ll take it. The community came out to support kids exploring science and working on public speaking, and TG came up with an invention to help Grandma with her cat. Somehow, that just doesn’t get old.  



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