8th grade science fair

In 1987, junior high school was a neverending expanse of hard-won survival and squandered opportunity.  If you were a bright boy like I was, you could take shelter in as many as three or four fifty minute segments per day of the smart kid classes.  Smart kid classes were relatively bereft of the bullies who patrolled the rest of junior high school, and also had a favorable male to female ratio.  That ratio was not quite as favorable as you might think, however, as bright boys like me had no game with the ladies.  They chose to spend their time with those boys in the other classrooms who were versed in dribbling basketballs, pick-up lines, and pop cultural references.  I could blame my three-years-too-early hand-me-down collection of flannel shirts, but turning beet red every time a female recognized my existence probably had more to do with it than anything else.

But there was a price to pay for survival.  There was always a price.  In exchange for fifty minutes of mercy in the smart kid classes, we had to listen to the teachers prosyletize about the fairs: science fair, history fair, media fair.  There was always some fair.  And we were almost always naïve enough to sign up for them.  We thought we’d scored big at the media fair when a classmate had an in with the local TV station, only to be upstaged by a Claymation music video set to a Weird Al song.  In our defense, one of the masterminds of that ordeal went on to become a Hollywood producer.  But today it’s the science fair I want to talk about.

As I remember it, our 8th grade science teacher gave us a choice: take 8th grade science or participate in the science fair.  As I remember it, a clever classmate somehow talked the teacher into this proposition, and the teacher bought it because 2/3 of the class signed up for the science fair.  Of course we signed up for that science fair: we were 13 and given the opportunity to roam the halls for an hour each day while presumably working on our projects.  We probably had to give some sort of proposal or status report on occasion, but we were still 13.  We were still living in those never-ending moments of adolescence.

When it comes to science, I’ve always had ideals that were a bit more lofty than they were pragmatic.  My dissertation advisor told me I needed ten years and a few million dollars to complete the first project idea I had.  When I was losing my baby teeth, I wanted to collect them for some sort of experiment rather than get a quarter.  I didn’t want a fairy sneaking around in my room anyways.  And when it came to the 8th grade science fair, instead of doing some consumer science project or making a maze for rats, I decided I was going to do some actual science.

For me, actual science meant measuring the differences in thermal expansivity for a variety of materials.  I’m not sure where I got this idea, but it sounded very important so I stuck with it even though I had no idea how to figure it out.  The first step was getting similar sized samples of different materials: wood, metal, and plastic.  I knew that if they were not the same size, the math could become problematic.  My parents were able to find me a wooden dowel, a cylindrical piece of aluminum, and the phone number to a plastics company.  They didn’t want to have anything to do with my science fair project, though, so I just kept borrowing a friend’s copy of Dragon magazine during our science project hour until somebody figured out how I should proceed.  Maybe I gave up on the piece of plastic, maybe I got by with something else, but eventually, I got to the second part which was measuring the thermal expansivity.

Things take up more space when you heat them: I was trying to find out how much more.  Imagine what that experiment looks like.  Imagine what it looks like for an unsupervised 13 year old.  I wasn’t completely unsupervised, someone had dragged the botany teacher out of her smoke break in the teacher’s lounge for the next part.  She was grading papers at her desk on the other side of the classroom and occasionally giving me these looks of “What the hell do you think you’re doing” but for the most part just looked like she really needed a drink.  What I was doing was measuring the diameter of the cylinders, placing them in the flame of a Bunsen burner, and then measuring the diameter again.  According to those crappy plastic rulers you get in junior high school, it didn’t change.  The wooden dowel did get a black mark on the end though, so I knew it wasn’t because it wasn’t getting hot enough.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do next.

And that’s about the last thing I remember until that day that I learned the science fair was coming up this very weekend.  And I had absolutely zero data.  I had two cylinders.  One of them burned on the end.   I had learned about Halfling Defenders from my friend’s Dragon magazine, but that wasn’t the stuff for science fair projects.  I’m not entirely certain what came next, but I’m fairly sure it involved repurposing the wooden poster board my dad had made me for some project in seventh grade, and a fair bit of plagiarizing.  I just made up a bunch of shit and put it on the poster.  I don’t know if the numbers were reasonable or not, but I did know that I had nothing to show for an entire academic year of science.  And it felt like it must be my fault.

It was adolescent naivete that got me into the 8th grade science project.  It was adolescent naivete that completely botched it.  And as it turned out, it would be adolescent naivete that would get me off the hook.  At least to some extent.  The 8th grade science fair was hosted at the local mall.  My project was set up directly across from the best video arcade in the county since Showbiz Pizza Place turned into Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant.  And I had a pocket full of quarters. I don’t know how many groups of judges came by while I sent Dirk the Daring to his death over and over again, but I only had to face one of them.  I only had to lie once when they asked me if I’d measured those numbers myself.  I’m not sure if I could have done it more times than that.

I think I got a C minus in science that year.  And then I got downgraded from the smart kid science class the next year.  I’m not entirely sure how my science teacher arrived at that grade from the one data point he had to evaluate me on.  I think it was some sort of compromise between “he completely made all this shit up” and “I completely punted his education.”  If he had called me out on lying in my project, that might have resulted in all kinds of unpleasantness about why I’d been allowed such free reign of lab equipment that I had no idea what to do with.  He wasn’t really the calling out type anyways.  He was a rather pleasant guy, perhaps to his own detriment as it turned out.

I can’t help but think about this story every time I judge a junior high science fair or end up helping some kid come up with a plan for a project.  It makes me feel that I’d somehow been let down back then.  That I could have had something more to show for my time in 8th grade science class than a lie.  Maybe this is just because science is the direction that my career has gone in, so it’s more obvious than whatever ways in which my social studies teachers might have let me down.  And maybe I actually made it through so many independent projects_ thesis, dissertation, organic chemistry lab, to name just a few_ because I found out at a relatively early age what can happen when you completely blow something like that off.

Whatever the case, this is a story from a time that is no more.  No child would be left alone for so long now in the days of standardized testing.  And I’m certainly not saying that’s better.  In fact, by comparison the opportunity to botch something so badly like I did is a bit of a gift.  I’d rather have that experience, that failure, than to have scored in the top 90+% 1 on some meaningless standardized test.  I want to say that the true answer, the best way of teaching kids science, is somewhere in between.  With something we call scaffolding: give them enough guidance so that they can take the right steps on their own.  I don’t think I’d recommend anything else to anyone.  But no matter how much science fairs bring me back to the memory of foolish choices I made more than 25 years ago, in the end I’m not sure if I’d want it any other way.

That never ending expanse of squandered opportunity that was our youth is both a curse and a blessing.  A curse because of what we might have done right if someone would have only told us.  A blessing because of how much we discovered about ourselves in the empty spaces we were left with.  I simply cannot imagine life without those empty spaces.  And it’s unlike anything the youth of this country are likely to see again for a very long time.

1-      which I would have. I did on all the ones we had back then.  But no standardized test, not then, not now, is going to have a question about whether or not this project was a good idea, and what to do about it when you find out way too late that it wasn’t.

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