Monday, January 07, 2013

Science Fair Project Rant

I hate science fair projects with a passion. I hated them when I was in school, and I hate them now that my kids are doing them.

I should qualify that I don't hate the experiments themselves. Lord knows, I've had strange things brewing in my kitchen, growing in the refrigerator, and cooking on the sidewalks over the years. Ella loves to experiment, and as long as she's not in danger of blowing herself or the house up, I provide supplies and get out of the way.

This year's project is to launch a Harry Potter figure into near space using a helium-filled weather balloon. Turns out, you can do that. She's been researching and talking about this for months. I had to sign a permission slip from school acknowledging that I knew what she was up to. She had meetings with a friend about doing it.

But now here we are, the week the project is due, and panic has set in. We have almost everything we need to launch - the box for payload, the weather balloon, the parachute, the radar reflector, the orange spray paint, the Harry Potter figure, the camera. It's all sitting on my dining room table ready to be assembled.

Except for two crucial ingredients - helium and a GPS-enabled device to find the payload when it lands.

Turns out there's a worldwide shortage of helium, and it's hard to find enough to fill party balloons, let alone weather balloons. One party store said we could buy a tank for $300 provided we also bought the 200 balloons that went with it. Ouch. Ella is spending the morning calling welding supply stores to see if she can get a better price.

The other issue is with the cell phones we were going to use to track it. We have two old iPhones that we should be able to track, no problem. Except they are no longer activated with cell phone service. Every freaking tracking program we've looked at requires cell phone service to work, even the ones that claim to use GPS signals, not cell service.

So if we can find the helium for a reasonable price, we will be going to the cell phone store to reactivate one of the cell phones. If that works, we'll launch.

With any luck, the balloon will get up to about 80,000 feet before it bursts, and the parachute will be big enough to control the payload's plummet back to earth, and we'll be able to find the payload and retrieve the camera and cell phone, and the camera will have recorded the trip.

If all that happens, Ella then has to put it all on a tri-fold display board with pictures and circles and arrows and fancy lettering and colors.

This is the part of the process I have a huge problem with.

She has learned all about ascent and descent rates, she's learned how to find the volume of a weather balloon, she's learned about telemetry and how to track things. She knows more about tracking programs than the average 12-year-old.

I don't understand why all of this has to be translated to fit on a tri-fold display board. Can't she stand up and explain what she did and how she did it and show some cool pictures of Harry Potter against the blackness of space? Nope. She has to make a display, and her grade is based on the display.

If everything comes together like we're hoping, we'll launch tomorrow at sunrise and find the payload in the afternoon. And then Thursday night at 10:00pm she'll be frantically gluing things to a tri-fold display board and crying.

I don't even want to think about what will happen if we can't get our hands on any helium. She'll have a display board with pictures of the payload and the parachute and the deflated weather balloons and a very sad Harry Potter figure.

Yay science.


Ann in NJ said...

Our schools no longer do science fairs, and I have to admit it makes me sad. This is probably because I am an engineer with an artistic bent so I enjoy the whole process.

I have to say, even though you hate the display part of it? Being able to communicate your experiment through visuals is an important part of science. While your "stand up and talk" idea is also vital, most scientific data is presented in papers - words and pictures. So it's a big part of the process to learn how to do that, too. Take pictures during takeoff and discovery, and that will go a long way towards her display. Wishing her luck!

Susan said...

While I never had this particularly dfficult set of probelems - I just genrally hated the whole forced march/science projects thing with my kids, too.

Wishing you the best on this!

tia said...

Wow. You are amazing. Ella is amazing. I am late to the game realizing what all went into this project (and catching a glimpse of just how disappointed Ella must be by now-after reading this and the following posts.) And I agree with you about projects-it's not the project itself, it's the "box" that is placed around the project. (rubrics/grades/deadlines etc.) As a teacher, I cannot think of any way around the box-which is actually a reflection of the boxes life puts in (deadlines/budgets/evaluations etc.). As a mom, though, I champion self-directed, unrestricted, creative learning. Anyway, the point of my rambling is to get back to the WOW that I started with-Ella is amazing. And so is her mom. :-)

tia said...

btw, tia is T.Williams