I don't remember a whole lot from my elementary school days, but I do recall my science fair project -- putting one plant in the sun, one in the shade, watering a third and denying a fourth any hydration.
The results, I have to admit, were fairly predictable. But one thing is for sure: As uninspired as this experiment was, it was cheap and wholly my own.
The elementary school that my younger son attends does not have a science fair, and my older child does not participate in that after-school option in his middle school. So I have been somewhat in the dark -- like my plant -- about how much things have really changed.
The biggest difference is that there is now an Internet, which is full of Web sites promoting science fair projects. I am not advocating them; after all, there are plenty of science experiments one can do using stuff readily available in the house or outdoors.
Nor am I suggesting that parents, some of whom are already too wrapped up in their children's work, start trolling through endless science project sites. And some of the sites, with their overwrought promises of helping students create winning projects, seem to miss the point. Call me an innocent, but shouldn't the goal of science fairs be to teach children how to do scientific research, not win blue ribbons?
But, that said, the Web sites can be a good resource tool. The question is how to sort the wheat from the chaff (a potential project?).
Kenneth Hess, founder and president of Science Buddies, a nonprofit group that runs www.sciencebuddies.org, which does not sell products, noted that there was a major difference between a science activity and an experiment.
"An experiment starts with a question and then good old-fashioned research," he said. "A lot of kits on science activity may be fun and engaging, but are kids learning? It's a little like the difference between connect the dots and making your own drawing."
On www.stevespanglerscience.com, for example, you can pay US$9.95 for the Baby Diaper Secret Science Fair Kit (for ages six and up with adult supervision); US$14.95 for the bacteria growing kit; or US$59.95 for 2,500 Color Changing UV Beads (you supply the sunscreen).
The trouble, said Shawn Carlson, who was awarded a 1999 MacArthur Fellowship for science education, is that there are thousands of Web sites catering to science projects, but "only a handful are seriously devoted to science."
Carlson, who runs his own Web site, said a first step was to determine the background of the person running the site.
"Is it someone authoritative, or is it a mom who's done some science projects?" he asked.
Then look at the experiments offered.
"Do they look like every other science experiment you've ever seen -- exploding volcanoes, growing bread mold? The best projects are not complete cookie cutter. They teach the general techniques to study a certain sphere of nature and then give you direction on how to ask your own original questions," Carlson said.
Steve Spangler, a former elementary school teacher and local science television reporter in Denver, agrees that kits should be a start to an experiment, not the completion of one.
He claims to be the discoverer of the always popular "drop the Mentos in Diet Coke and watch the geyser," featured on his Web site.
But "when kids drop Mentos into a Diet Coke, it's not a science project," he said.
"They should look at how high it goes, how many Mentos can you put in, does changing brands make a difference, does using hot or cold liquid change it?" he said.
Of the 900 products he sells, Spangler said, he develops 40 percent himself, often with the help of teachers. He also provides free step-by-step experiments.
While our local elementary school does not do a science fair, we do have the Invention Convention, in which fifth-graders make up their own contraptions. Who can forget my son's handy carrier (using one of my old leather belts) for iPod, cellphone and all your other immediate electronic needs?
But our neighboring school has a fair, for third-to fifth-graders, sponsored by the Parent Teacher Association, and it reflects the science fairs of my time.
The rules stipulate that no "commercially available kits" can be used.
Also banned are live animals and the handing out of food items and harsh or dangerous chemicals.
So the projects consist of how tadpoles grow into frogs, or figuring out how your nose works. And there are no losers -- or winners.
"It's a very, very basic science fair," said Sarah Murray, who helps organize the event and whose son examined which bat hit a ball harder -- metal or wood (no steroids experiments please).
This, of course, is as far from national or international science fairs as a Little League game is from the World Series.
Next month, the finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search, for high school seniors, will meet in Washington, and more than US$1 million worth of prizes are at stake.
The other big competition, the Intel Science and Engineer Fair, also attracts students with huge prizes -- and a chance to show off their doctoral-quality work.
At last year's fair, for example, more than 20 percent of the participants -- in grades 9 through 12 -- held or had applied for patents on their work.
We've come a long way from one of the early national science fairs, in 1955, when 14 students participated and the winner built a scale model of Eli Whitney's cotton gin, said Lawrence Bellipanni, a retired professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on science fairs.
Bellipanni found that by the early 1990s, more than 60 percent of about 400 national finalists had either been mentored by a professional scientist or prepared their projects in a university or other research lab.
Even if your child is not of that caliber, you can still, say, mine DNA in your own kitchen. Carlson's site sells a US$37 DNA extraction kit, which the ad boasts, is like having a mini-CSI DNA laboratory in your home.
So perhaps your family could enjoy the benefit not just of a science project but also of solving local crimes.
Carlson's site offers free science projects, but for access to "over 1,000 Super Science Projects Right Now!" he charges US$17 a month or US$27 a year.
Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, said he had seen how these Web sites had flourished, but that parental involvement -- or overinvolvement -- is nothing new.
"It depends how intrusive parents get -- if instead of guiding, Mommy and Daddy are helping with the display," he said. "I've judged some science fairs, and it's clear when parents have done it."
And too many kits are more science demonstrations than experiments, he said, which do not give a child "a sense of process, of answering questions," he said.
"The hardest part is often coming up with the question and seeing if the experiment gives them the answer they expected. It's even better when it doesn't," Wheeler said.
Wheeler recalled when his daughter was in kindergarten and was fascinated with skulls. Her experiment was making a skull from a suckling pig head.
He said that he boiled the water, but she did everything else.
And realize, Bellipanni said, that while collections and models can be very nice, they are not science.
Some of the sites recommended by the people I talked to include the Discovery Channel's and the Exploratorium in San Francisco.
Hess, whose www.sciencebuddies.org site has corporate sponsors, said: "We feel it's important to make resources available to some parents who don't have the money."
His site also offers an "ask an expert" option, using volunteer scientists to answer questions.
Carlson says children need to be taught that while science can be fun, it is also hard work.
"If you only tell them science is fun, then when it gets to be hard work, you raise their expectations, only to dash them," he said. "Then they get turned off."
Well, I don't know about you, but I am excited to pursue some science now. Where is that DNA kit? Maybe we can track down who took the last piece of cake.
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