Parents persecuted in the name of school science fairs

April 28, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

Alexander Graham Bell, one version of the story goes, invented the telephone while trying to create something that would help his sainted mother, who was losing her hearing.

But the truth of it is, she was trying to help him do a project for the science fair and she discovered the telephone.

It is spring, and it is science fair season. In an example of very poor scheduling, schools everywhere are asking parents and their children to cooperate on a complex educational project at just the moment when the weather changes and the kids want to ride their bikes and the parents want to get their yard work done.

"And we all know who does them," says one mother, who asks that her name not be used in order to protect the integrity of her child's project.

Yes, we all know the scene: A parent working earnestly on the giant poster board while a child drifts aimlessly in and out of the room. "Are you going to do this part? Are you going to help with this?" the parent asks again and again.

We forswore science fairs after just one. Then, my son's science teacher required the class to enter and said their projects would represent the bulk of their nine-week grades. What a cruel trick.

Things got so bad in our house the weekend before the project was due that we almost had to go into family therapy. A very angry father came to some frightening conclusions about his son's ability to focus, complete a task and work independently, and about what that portended regarding his future place in the criminal justice system. It was so tense, my daughter and I went to the mall.

"Will I ever do a science fair project, mommy?" my second-grader asked and her lip quivered. "No dear," I said, calming her. "Not unless teacher makes you."

The sacrifices parents have made in the name of science fairs TC are legion. One mother I know spent an entire day driving all over Southern California searching for a special chemical to test the acidity of orange juice. "Whose project is this anyway?" she kept shrieking from behind the wheel of her car.

Failing to find that special science fair poster board that is divided into thirds like a mirror in a department store dressing room, one father hired a carpenter to build one. "It is still under my bed," says his wife, all these years later.

A friend remembers her family evacuating the house the weekend she dissected 35 dead frogs for her science fair project. "My family was horrified, and I didn't even win," she says.

It was more of a success than her sister's. "She was going to hatch live chicks. They delivered the fertilized eggs with instructions to keep them warm. My mother wasn't home, so my sister put them in a pot on the stove and cooked them."

Science fairs have been around since the world was thought to be flat -- it was Magellan's mother who suggested that he circumnavigate the globe for his science fair project -- and the kids with the pushy parents have the best chance to win.

"They really are student-parent projects," says a veteran teacher friend. "The ones that win are the ones where you can see that the organization and the thinking is directed."

That is one of the tough lessons taught at the science fair. That so much separates the have children from the have-not children. The ones who have the patient dad, the mother who will drive all over town collecting the supplies, the computer and the handful of new, juicy markers. And the ones who simply tear out three pages from a notebook and draw some pictures.

Both sets of children may think science fairs are a great pain, but only one is made painfully aware of what he doesn't have.

Might it not make more sense to develop the ideas in science class, edit the hypothesis and conclusions in English class, print them out in the computer lab and do a fancy poster-board illustration in art class?

"Science fairs are worth it," says my teacher friend. "They can be a teaching tool in the classroom and a motivator for other kids. And the child who has an affinity for science -- if it takes him a step further, it is worth it."

We are already thinking about next year's science fair project. My son, with a 10-year-old's fascination for fire, wants to test different fabrics to see how quickly they burn. His cousin did that one, and he likes the idea.

I should be a proper science fair mother and let him do this project all by himself. But if I don't get involved, he's going to head for his sister's dresser with a Bic lighter.

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