Friday, January 29, 2010

On Science Fairs and Slave Labor

Every person with the title of parent has several subtitles.  You might be a Soccer Parent or a Ballet Parent.  Some are Drama Club Parents or Odyssey of the Mind Parents.  I've been a Choir Parent, a Baseball Parent, and a Karate Parent.  These last couple of weeks, I have become a Science Fair Parent.

Before you jump to any conclusions, let me state for the record that I am a Science Fair Parent, but I'm not one of those Science Fair Parents.  Anyone who's ever participated in or attended a science fair knows what kind of parent I'm talking about.  Those Science Fair Parents are the ones who do the entire project for their children with visions of fame and glory fueling the fires of their homemade volcanoes.

You're thinking of that 8 year old with the mechanically orbiting solar system with real solar flares, moons that affect tides, space shuttles zipping in and out of planets against a backdrop or sparkling stars and set to a recording of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos."  You looked at that kid as she beamed and proclaimed, "I made it myself!" and wondered if the judges had taken crazy pills when they gave her first prize.

There was a kid in my school with one of those Science Fair Parents.  She and her partner did a project on the way in which rivers flow.  They had a display the size of a dining room table covered with a well-made, plastic landcape.  A switch under the display started the water works, and suddenly, that landscape, complete with a village, had water running through its vast array of riverbeds.  Children and adults swarmed the display and offered their rapt oohs and aahs.

My childhood friend, Andrea (Hi, Andrea! Isn't Facebook Friend Finder great?) and I stood next to our flood display and knew we were sunk (heh).  Our display consisted of a cake sized clear plastic container in which we'd flooded a much more modest town with lovely, clear water that made it look like we'd brought in a collection of very small bath toys and were offering a dip to any elves who might be in the room.

That's all I have to say about that.

So, there's a science fair coming up, and while I am firmly committed to not doing my daughter's project for her, I have become a Science Fair Parent.  My definition of Science Fair Parent is a parent who encourages and assists her child in completing a science fair project, not for the acquisition of fame and glory but for a much nobler purpose: to answer questions I need answered.

It's a wonderful moment when you realize you have a passel of mini scientists in the house just waiting for someone to turn their little brains in the direction of an experiment.  Ladies and gentlemen, I have stumbled upon a research goldmine.  Slave labor, thy name is science fair.

I don't know if Miriam knows I used her scientist skills for my own personal edification.  She had a lot of fun using them, anyway.  I bought a bag of ice melting salt at the beginning of the season and wanted to know if it was actually worth the price.  If table salt works just as well, I certainly won't be buying the pricey stuff again.  Miriam set to work on my question, I mean, her project, and the results were more than satisfactory for this mom.

When I think about it, my kids have always been employed in this way.  For instance, they helped me learn that 2 in 1 shampoos are complete garbage and result in dry, tangled hair that's impossible to comb.  I've learned the relative strength of cabinet doors in every type of wood, ie. not strong enough for my kids to swing on.  I once observed a chemical reaction on the floor of my son's room when he decided to make brownies on the carpet and then clean it up with Ajax.

The great news for me is that after seeing her sister's skills put to use, Cate has approached me with science fair dreams in her own head.  She's not required to enter a project like her sister is, but extra credit is more than enough motivation for her to put in the work.  Now my head is swimming with experiments I need her to do, and I'm again laughing softly to myself over my own good fortune.

Let the other parents do the grunt work for a ribbon.  I'm opening my own lab.