Friday, April 29, 2005

At The Science Fair

Yesterday morning Mrs.Coturnix and I went to Coturnietta's school. Her class had a Science Fair! You can just imagine my excitement - a scientist's daughter's first venture into science!

For two weeks she pestered me to help her with her project, and I did a little bit here and there (using sharp objects when neccessary, for instance, or going to the store and buying supplies she ordered), but in general, I did my best to resist the urge to do more than minimum and let her do it all by herself. And she did. She built a seismograph out of a cardboard box, a paper cup, a marker, some pebbles (from her aquarium!), and a roll of paper. And it worked wonderfully!

She picked her assignment herself. She's been interested in earthquakes and volcanoes lately (a budding Earth scientist?). She dug through our library and found all those thousands of books on biology (and nursing and philosophy and politics....), but nothing about earthquakes. So I went to Quail Ridge Books (they have a great childrens' book section) and asked if they had something. I was shown about ten books on earthquakes and I picked two that I thought would be at her reading level and of interest to her. And she read them hungrily the first day I brought them home.

She also built a poster out of carboard and glued onto it several sheets of paper with handwritten facts about earthquakes and the way seismograph works. She asked me where she could find some illustrations for the poster. I pointed her to my stack of old science magazines in the corner, various old issues of Science, Nature, Discover, Scientific American, American Scientist and Discover (all of which subscriptions ran out, as I cannot afford them and at the same time I am punishing myself for not finishing my Dissertation yet - no fun science until the stats and graphs are done!). Within two minutes she had not just a very pretty photograph of the Earth (from a cover) but also a series of figures showing tectonic plates from a paper in Nature! She is in third grade!

So, on Wednesday I helped her carry all that stuff to her classroom and, from what I hear, several other classes came to visit their Science Fair. Yesterday it was time for parents to come and visit. It looked like a poster session at a scientific meeting with each child standing in front of the poster, explaining what it was all about and demonstrating something.

Coturnietta is the youngest, smallest and timidest kid in the class. She is very shy. She does not talk to strangers. So we were surprised, very pleasantly of course, to see her talk enthusiastically about her project to all those parents circling around the room. I heard her explain the plate tectonics (the pieces of broken egg-shell floating on the suface of the egg-white that is the Earth), and how earthquakes happen when the two plates hit each other. I saw her demonstrate her seismograph and how the squiggles on the paper can tell you where the earthquake is and how strong it is. I was sooooo impressed. My father's (and scientist's) heart was so full of joy and pride.

Other kids' projects were also very impressive for third grade. And they all were so confident and calm explaining to us how their stuff works. Myself, I am very happy they serve wine at poster sessions at conferences....

It was only after it was all over and we were leaving the school that I thought that this was something to blog about. About a minute later, Mrs.Coturnix said "You should write about this on your blog!". So, here it is.

It was interesting to notice some other things about the Science Fair, too. For instance, children of poor or less educated parents were doing their projects in pairs, while kids of more educated parents were going solo. Of course, some kids of scientists (and there are many in Chapel Hill) produced projects that were obviously made by parents. I do not think that a third-grader can do all that wiring and soldering and hammering nails needed for some of the more ambitious projects. Coturnietta's teacher was so proud of her for doing the whole project by herself.

Another thing is that Science Fair is a misnomer. It was really a Technology Fair. Kids were supposed to write their hypotheses on their poster boards, but nobody tested any hypotheses (except: "I hypothesize that my contraption will work the way it should"). Kids built models of stuff (e.g., volcanoes, tornadoes, airplanes), or built instruments to measure something (seismograph, Watt-meter), or explained how something man-made works (e.g., lightbulb, speakers), or described an applied technology (grafting fruit trees), or described some part of nature (human skeleton). I sure hope that as they grow up they get taught the difference between science and technology. For now, it is great to see how much fun they had and how proud they all were of their work.c

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