Thursday, December 4, 2008

Science Fair

My sixth grader is beginning her first science fair project. It’s a vast undertaking, a mammoth enterprise incorporating multiple pieces and parts. There are forms to fill out and permissions to procure. Her teacher has given her a substantial heap of instructions. Rubrics abound. She feels excited and ready for the job. Not me. It brings up all my insecurities.

Science teachers scare me. At our school, we have wonderful science teachers. All women. Delightful people. They are talented and engaging teachers; they behave in public; you could even invite them out to dinner and they wouldn’t embarrass you. But there is something that sets me on edge.

It may be that they are just way smarter than I. They know the periodic table by heart, they can discuss the intricate details of oxidation and photosynthesis, they are immune to disgusting smells, they know the difference between Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and they are comfortable handling creepy animals.

One of the science teachers at my school keeps two tree pythons in a large glass tank in her classroom. She actually lets her students touch these insidious creatures. The kids encourage the snakes to crawl around their waists and necks and they even bring them outside at recess. There is nothing worse than minding my own business, supervising kids at play, nursing my steaming cup of coffee, and thinking about how much more fun it would be to be lying on a beach in Mexico, when some irksome middle schooler ambushes me with a deadly reptile, forked tongue inquisitively probing my outer ear. I think the science teacher puts them up to it.

I was never very successful at science at school. I think it was an early sign of my unwillingness to follow rules. I was taught that science required me to stay within the lines. It bade me adhere to strict principles, abide by specific guidelines. It forced me to acknowledge that certain laws were not negotiable. The liberal artist in me couldn’t deal. I wanted to create, to experiment without a hypothesis, to throw a whole bunch of hydrochloric acid into the beaker and see what would happen. My English and history teachers loved me. I always failed science tests.

My science teacher’s name in elementary boarding school was Mr. Parsons. He had one of those bushy mustaches which were so fetching back in the seventies. Mr. Parsons was a former policeman, a fact which clearly made him uniquely qualified to teach fourth grade chemistry. He used to hurl blackboard erasers at my head if I talked in class. The wooden kind. He was a sadistic son of a gun. Maybe this is why I didn’t learn very much science. I think Mr. Parsons was hired because the headmaster had a thing for his wife’s alabaster skin and winsome smile.

In high school, my chemistry teacher was Mr. Packard, he of the throbbingly large nose and the insipidly monotonous voice. Chemistry under his guidance only existed in formulas, never in action. I copied down pages upon pages of molecular formulas, but don’t recall touching any equipment with my hands.

Mr. Hinge taught physics. After one year, he gave it all up to become a priest. I never got the chance to ask him where he stood on evolution.

My biology teacher was Dr. Upshaw. While not a medical professional, he took it upon himself to perform exploratory examinations on all incoming freshmen. Why I am not quite sure, but one was trained not to ask such questions in English boarding schools. Dr. Upshaw was a prober and pronounced the letter “s” as “sh”. “Looshen your troushersh” is a phrase I will not readily forget.

But that is all in the past. Thirty years later, I am learning to become open-minded about science. My daughter and her lab partner are encouraged to think outside the box, to design their own experiments based on what they find interesting. They are conducting a study of whether exercise affects short-term memory. This is cool stuff. I’m hoping it will shed light on the fact that the longer I go between visits to the gym, the harder it is to find my car keys. I have been assuming that it was just age, but there may be method behind my madness.

The budding scientists are developing an excellent understanding of the scientific process which will set them in good stead as they discover the wider world. They are holding themselves accountable and having to keep excellent records, traits from which I could learn as tax day rolls around each year. They have to discuss their results and be open to the possibility that they might be wrong. Dr. Upshaw needed a strong dose of that. They also get to design a really eye-catching poster – with colorful accents, intriguing vocabulary, appealing pictures, and attractive graphs.

My daughter’s science teachers are doing amazing work. Science is teaching her to think for herself, to use her resources wisely, and to be inquisitive about her world. Where was that when I was in school?

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