Erupting soda, pureed cereal and melted butter are nourishing brain food at school science fair

Competition feeds kids' intellectual appetites

Maryland Journal


Do relatives have similar fingerprints?

Do bananas turn brown more quickly in the refrigerator or on the counter? How does wearing shoes on the incorrect feet affect your speed?

At Seventh District Elementary School last week, kids asked the darndest questions - and systematically found some answers.

In Baltimore County, this is the season for the school science fair, a ritual that gets kids pondering the wonders of their universe. From physics to chemistry, from measuring a ball's bounce to putting paper towels to the test.

Many educators hope that the experience will help children grasp how scientists and engineers approach problems and that perhaps they will consider a career in the field.

"When they have to be hands-on in science, that's when they really understand," said fifth-grade teacher Caitlin Harris, who coordinated Seventh District's science fair.

On a recent evening, parents photographed more than 120 fourth- and fifth-graders in front of their trifold displays in the Parkton school's cafeteria. Children dashed around looking at their classmates' work.

Most Baltimore County public elementary schools hold a fair between February and early May to select representatives for a countywide fair in May, county school officials said.

The task has changed quite a bit since the first student science fair in the late 1920s at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, according to a book published by the National Science Teachers Association. Newspaper articles from the time describe the Children's Science Fair as an exposition of dioramas depicting the natural world, agriculture and industry.

These days, children are asked not to make volcanoes that spew vinegar-and-baking soda "lava" or models of the solar system, but to follow the scientific method.

"We encourage testable questions," said elementary science resource teacher Connie Flowers.

Kids ask a question and research the topic to develop an informed hypothesis. They then develop a procedure and identify variables. They then gather data and draw a conclusion based on their results.

Since the late 1990s, science educators have agreed that they need to emphasize inquiry and critical thinking, said Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

At the same time, schools are now confronted by student performance standards, Wheeler said. Performance is measured by standardized tests, which typically ask "factoid" questions, he said. "Suddenly now the science fairs take on a different kind of importance," Wheeler said.

As students get older, science fairs provide a forum for sophisticated research and competition at national and international levels. The events expose teenagers to leaders of industry and academia.

Seventh District Elementary's teachers vet the questions but usually give the kids leeway to explore. The children are prohibited from some experiments, however, including anything that involves vertebrate animals or requires withholding or providing food.

For his project, fifth-grader Jake Janiak compared the height of eruptions from 2-liter bottles of Coke, Diet Coke and Black Cherry Vanilla Coke when eight Mentos candies were dropped inside. His hypothesis? The highly flavored variety would have the highest eruption, because "it has the most ingredients added to it."

Actually, the Diet Coke left a nearly 4-foot-tall splash mark on a brick wall, higher than the other types of soda. Jake suggested further research should test whether the artificial sweetener aspartame prompted the higher explosion.

Many pupils tried the suggested banana experiment and learned that bananas browned faster in the refrigerator. Some considered consumer science questions, such as which is the most absorbent diaper.

A popular test was trying to determine what juices cleaned pennies the best. (In the tradition of clever names for the tests, one was dubbed, "The Dirt on Honest Abe," another "Filthy Rich.")

"We try to encourage kids to use things they have readily available at home," Flowers said. "This is not meant to be a six-week ordeal."

Although the explanations on some of the corrugated-cardboard displays were scrawled by a childish hand, Flowers said some parents become quite competitive about their child's projects,

"That's an evil we don't necessarily have 100 percent of control over," said Leslie Brooks, Seventh District's principal. "We encourage [pupils] to do as much as they can on their own."

Sometimes the rest of the family learns, too.

Jonathan Galla took first place among fourth-graders for his project "Iron-ic Cereal." He pureed iron-rich breakfast cereals and used a strong magnet to extract the iron. Then he used clear tape to pick up the filings. He got results from three of his four choices - the fourth brand used a nonmagnetized form of iron.

"We never thought there'd be filings in cereal," said his father, Rob Galla.

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