A Cache of Science Fair Boards


2014-03-09 – My wife Kit was cleaning out a closet yesterday and found a pile of science fair and history fair projects. The glue has dried out and the pieces once firmly attached to the boards are loose or completely detached. “We probably should throw these out,” she said. “Would the boys want them?” I asked. “Look at them,” she said. “I seriously doubt it.”

I took some quick photos to remember them by, but they didn’t come out very well. I uploaded them to my computer, but thought I would write about them, instead, to keep the memory.

Many people dump on the idea of science fairs and history fairs, saying that the projects end up getting done by the parents, not the kids. I see the point of this objection but, with me and my boys, these projects were a chance to share interests and memories that were important to our families.

Most of the projects we found were Nat’s. Part of this was due to the fact that Cal changed schools in seventh grade and simply didn’t have as many project to do as Nat. But I’m giving Cal a chance to remind me of projects that didn’t make today’s post. I’m not entirely sure of the order of these, but it can’t be far off.

Gravity and Air. Cal was a little boy, maybe in second grade. He had heard that Galileo had established that different types objects fall at the same rate. He wanted to prove this wrong! My former-physics-major self went to our second-floor deck and dropped a variety of things while experimenter Cal waited at the bottom to see which hit first. Naturally, stones fell faster than feathers. Cal had his proof. I asked him what effect he thought the air had on his experiment. He didn’t know. So we got a long, sealed plexiglass tube and hooked it up to our vacuum cleaner, trying to suck all the air out. With air (supposedly) out of the equation (the vacuum cleaner was making maximum noise as proof), we tried the drops again—this time inside the evacuated tube. The rock still hit first. Cal’s hypothesis was vindicated: Galileo was wrong! (Presumably, our vacuum cleaner didn’t suck enough air out of the tube and air resistance was still a factor acting on the feather.)

Volume of Gases. Nat might have been in fourth grade for this one. He investigated the relationship between temperature and the volume of gas in a balloon. We first submerged a balloon in a liquid at various temperatures and measured the volume by how much liquid was displaced. We used room-temperature water and ice water, and that worked fine. The cold balloon was smaller than the room-temperature balloon. We tried hot water, but that made the balloon burst. Then we tried a really cold liquid—liquid nitrogen. It was hard to measure the displacement of the liquid nitrogen, since it was boiling at -320.44°F (77.2 K). But it’s impact on the balloon was amazing. The balloon shrank to almost nothing. But that wasn’t the best part. When you removed the balloon from the liquid nitrogen, the balloon reexpanded as the air inside warmed up. On the day of the science fair we brought liquid nitrogen to the school so Nat could demonstrate the effect. (It’s quite easy to get from a plumbing supply store. Nat had a leg up by having uncles who are plumbers who told us about the place.) The talk at the school was that we were endangering the students with this exotic liquid (which was nonsense, considering the small quantity we brought). The fact is: they were jealous.

Child Labor. This was Nat’s project for the history fair. Honestly, I don’t remember much about it except that child labor laws were enacted around the turn of the twentieth century in tandem with mandatory education laws. Folks didn’t like their kids competing with them for jobs in the new industrial economy, but they wanted something (education) for them to do instead.

Skipping Stones. This was Cal’s project and was a lot of fun. We spent a day skipping stones at a pond nearby and kept records of which types of stones and which types of throws worked better.

Chain and Sprocket. This was Nat’s project to measure the mechanical advantage of the gears on his 21-speed bike. It was an elegant experiment and won the science fair. He got to display this at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Give Peace a Chance. Nat collected tunes and lyrics of peace songs from the Vietnam era for this history fair project. I don’t directly remember what grade Nat was in, but I’m guessing he was in fifth or sixth. It grew out of a discussion of my experiences protesting the Vietnam War, which we had during the run-up to the Iraq War. At that time, Nat still liked my music and was happy to learn about the artists who opposed the Vietnam War in a musical way. We wondered why there weren’t any good tunes coming out of the Iraq war.

Second City. A constant competition in my family centers around the question of who is the funniest. Cal knew that I had once done a year of improv training at Players Workshop of Second City. One summer we enrolled him in a Second City summer camp. And his history fair project that year was about the history of Second City and all the Second City alumni who went on to become famous comic actors.

Conflict and Compromise in the Chicago Building Trades. This was Nat’s project, which focused on a moment in the history of Chicago trade unions. His uncles were members of the plumbers and pipefitters unions. The project had to do with a huge work stoppage that occurred in the years after World War I and how the dispute was settled.

Building the Dan Ryan Expressway. Nat continued the focus on construction with this project that eventually earned him a place in the state history fair in Springfield. The big bone of contention had to do with the placement of the highway route—east or west of Sox park—and whether the decision was made to keep blacks away from Bridgeport, which was the home neighborhood of the first Mayor Daley.

Skateboards and Friction. This was Nat’s project that investigated the friction difference between a skateboard on wheels and a skateboard that is “grinding” (sliding or scraping on a rail).

Mediation. This project was a history of the Center for Conflict Resolution, where I was once a volunteer mediator. Yes, I may have had some influence on Nat’s project selection. I certainly had a big influence on the last one on the list . . .

CEPTIA. The Committee to End Pay Toilets In America was an organization that some friends and I started when we were in college. We actually succeeded in getting some laws passed. I put Nat in touch with my friends and he did the interviews.

So, was it bad to be involved in my boys’ projects? I don’t think so. They learned a lot about their family history and their near-personal connections to labor and culture and politics of their hometown. And they did it in a way that was much deeper and involving than just listening to their parents schmooze. Or not listening.

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