I was talking to my brother last night, and apparently his oldest kid has been working on a science fair project for school. During the course of the conversation, I was told about the list of restrictions the school gave my nephew in regards to him displaying his project. Turns out when it comes to science projects, all the school really wants is a 2D visual display showing pictures and what the outcome was. It seems the era of presenting your experiment in front of teachers and students is mostly over. At the very least it’s being reserved for college students that are required to present their dissertation to a panel of fellow scientists.
I was a little saddened by this. I have fond memories of the science fair. There were always at least 4 kids in each class that made a baking soda volcano and there was always the Styrofoam copy of the solar system… poor Pluto. We hardly knew ye.
We then started thinking about some of the science projects we either did or saw while in or elementary years. I remember the science fair was required for each 4th, 5th, and 6th grade kid. The thing was once we completed our science project at home, we had to bring it to class and give a working presentation to all our peers. I think this was to make sure the kids actually learned something about the project their parents either helped with, or completely did for them… depending on the kid, or, more often than not, the parents.
Still, in looking back, there were some things that… let’s just say I’m amazed what we got away with. Case and point, one girl did a presentation on the evil, wicked, mean, and bad, and nasty chemicals that the human body takes in from smoking cigarettes. The experiment consisted of the presenter starting their presentation by opening all of the windows in the classroom. Then she reached into a plastic bag and pulled out a new, unopened pack of cigarettes and lit up.
No, she didn’t personally start smoking. Instead, she put the cigarette in a little make shift device made out of an empty 2 liter bottle of soda. She then squeezed on the sides of the bottle and it essentially smoked the cigarette for her. So there we were, 25+ kids sitting at our desks while a plastic bottle smoked an entire cigarette. But it was fine see, because we avoided any health risks by opening the windows before hand. She then showed the class all of the discoloration that had seeped into the once white filter. We clapped, and she placed her smokes and smoking bottle in a box and went back to her chair.
Just so were all clear on this, the presentation for the experiment consisted of her smoking an entire cigarette in the classroom filled with 5th graders via an empty 2 liter bottle! Yes, feel free to insert any expletive you feel is fitting at this point.
Now let’s talk about my 6th grade science project. I didn’t have cable growing up. I only had three channels, ABC, CBS, and NBC, and that was it. Although, occasionally I did go to a friends house after school to watch Danger Mouse and You Can’t Do That on Television on Nickelodeon. It was during one of these after school viewings that I came across Bill Nye the Science Guy who was doing a presentation on density.
I thought it was fascinating, but only because he had a cylinder of four different liquids that were all different densities and thus had four different layers of liquid in the same container. Then he would drop random objects into the cylinder that would float on the different levels of liquid. It didn’t really get it at first, but it was cool to watch.
I wanted to do a reenactment of Bill’s experiment for my science project. So I talked to my dad about it, and he agreed to help out. It consisted of getting 15 one inch wood squares that were a variety of different densities. Then I collected the four liquids of different densities. Here’s how it broke down, one cup of mineral spirits, one up of water, one cup of cooking oil, and one cup of liquid mercury… yes, liquid mercury.
I was a 12 year old that had access to a vial of liquid mercury. I got to take to school, unsupervised, and show all my friends. We even played with it in our hands before and after I cleaned up my presentation… because liquid metal when you are 12 is just pretty damn cool. And no, I did not wear any protective gloves… I was 12. The finer points of how liquid mercury could possibly kill me if I handled it wrong was sort of lost on me.
And on top of it all off, was I was answering questions about my project, I… maybe it was the mixture of chemicals and the potent odor they gave off, maybe it was from playing with the mercury, but after the second question was asked, I got out about three words out and then hit the floor. Yes, I fainted mid sentence.
I did get third place out of the entire school that year though. I’m not sure if my fainting helped sway the vote or if my project was just that brilliant, but I did not appreciate it when the principle announced, “For our third place winner, we have our fainting scientist Richard Timothy!” But when they gave me that big shiny ribbon I really didn’t mind him saying that.
I believe my favorite experiment was the mini distillery, I mean fuel creation experiment. I was in 5th grade at the time and one of the 6th graders made a tiny distillery to make what he claimed was an alternative fuel source. He had all the components set up including an open flame Bunsen burner. He showed everyone that showed up at his booth how, if he took certain items and put them together, he could create an “alternative fuel” source.
Sugar coat it all you want, but the fact of the matter is that kid was making moonshine… which, if you stop and think about it, is rather impressive in its own right. Personally, I was amazed that the faculty didn’t confiscated it and set it up in the teachers lounge next to the Mr. Coffee.
Yeah, things have changed a bit in the school systems from when I was a kid. Are they better, who can really say? I mean sure they aren’t allowed to play with cigarettes, moonshine, open flames, or liquid mercury in the name of science, but then again that might not be a bad thing.
For the record, I do still have all my fingers and toes, and I only once burned down a small portion of my neighbor’s fence… by accident. I did learn first hand why adults tell you not to play with matches, and I haven’t burned down anything since. So there, lesson learned, but then again that’s a different story.
So, do any of you have any boggling science fair experiment stories? I’d be curious to hear what they are.
Google Images, key words: science fair, density liquid, liquid mercury, Danger Mouse, moonshine, and smoking.