Let me tell you about middle school science projects. When I was a kid in a small town in Tennessee back in the long ago, science wasn’t held in the same reverence it is in 2014. Our projects were constrained by our parents, history and church, so things like evolution, dinosaurs, and any place outside of the Confederacy being the center of the universe were not considered proper discussion topics, and had no place being pinned to a sheet of white poster board and presented as fact. Times have changed…in some places. Consider the following, which took place just last April.
“I had to do a science project for school,” said my son, Joey. “It’s part of the Common Core.”
“Great,” I said. “So when do we get started on it?”
“Get started?” he muttered. “I finished it yesterday.”
“You finished… What do you mean you finished it yesterday? I didn’t get a chance to help you.”
“I know,” said Joey with a grin. “That’s why I finished it at school. Remember what happened last year?”
Ah, yes. Last year. In my defense, our experiment worked perfectly on the YouTube video we watched. But knowing how the observation of an object affects his reality, we should have known it would not work when other people were watching. I’m sure it was quantum, either that or there is some fundamental difference in the chemical composition of Mentos and Tic Tacs.
“So, what is your science project on?”
“Composting,” he said. “I worked really hard. We all did. I had two partners and we have the best project in the class.”
“I’m sure they’re all very good,” I said. “Science isn’t about competition, unless there’s really big money involved. So, what do you know about composting? Because I don’t know anything about composting. Is there a post involved?”
“Come to the fair and find out,” he replied. “But don’t embarrass me,” he added with narrow, slightly threatening eyes. “Can I play Skylanders until dinner?”
I did go to the fair, and I was impressed. The theme was the environment, and I saw a number of presentations on water power, wind power, solar power, and any number of ways we can save the earth.
“This is a water pump,” said a young scientist. “It uses gravity to move water from this reservoir, down this pipe, up this pipe, and finally into this area. You can see how this will help people who have to…you know…move water.”
“It looks easier than putting a bucket on your head and coming back from a crocodile-infested river,” I said.
“I read that in a book once. Say, what do we have here?” I asked.
“This is a game on renewable energy,” said a young lady. “Spin the wheel, and I’ll ask you a question. A correct answer will move your piece forward three spaces.”
“I’ll play,” I said. I gave the wheel a decent spin and waited.
“OK,” she said. “You landed on a 3. That means you get an easy question.”
“I’m ready,” I said. “Let’s have it.”
“What is the atomic weight of uranium?”
“Ummm, the atomic… ummm. Uh oh, my cell phone’s ringing.”
“No it isn’t,” she said. “Let’s go, atomic weight of uranium. Chop chop.”
“It’s on vibrate,” I countered.
“He doesn’t know it, he doesn’t know it,” began a chorus of cherubs.
“You know,” I replied, weakly, “I was an English major, and if it didn’t involve mutations or the end of the world, I don’t recall reading anything about the atomic weight of…”
“I’m just kidding you, Mr. H. This isn’t one of the easy questions. Oh, wait, yes it is. But you know it, right? Because I thought you were, you know, pretty smart.”
“I’m really not,” I muttered. “Excuse me, but I think I see my son’s exhibit over there. I’ll be right back.”
Three seconds later:
“Joey, quick. What’s the atomic weight of uranium?”
“It’s 238.02891 grams per mole,” he said. “We aren’t in elementary school anymore, for crying out loud.”
“I have to say, science fairs have changed a lot since I was your age,” I said. “But I guess science has changed. There’s a lot more to know, and it’s OK to know it, if you know what I mean. I can remember turning in a notebook full of tree leaves for a science project. It took a week to collect them and label them. That’s what my neighbor said when he sold it to me for 2 bucks. I have learned a lot today. But these brownies need some work. They’re too moist… and earthy.”
“That’s not a brownie,” said Joey’s partner. “That’s compost.”
“Compost. Really?” I said. “Wish I had stopped at one.”
And so I left the Fourth Grade Science Fair and went directly to the emergency clinic, a little wiser and a lot smarter. True, I had a bad taste in my mouth, but it was literal, not metaphorical, and after a well-needed purge, I was almost fine. I just can’t eat chocolate like I used to. I’m very proud of the work all the kids did, and I am grateful for the reverence they have for science. Unlike the powers that ruled us long ago, I don’t think any fact or theory is unfit for the holy white poster board.
In some places, that is.