"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Science Fair (or The Time My Dad Blew Up the Fifth Grade) – Part 1

When I was in school, we had the Science Fair every year, and that meant every year going through the process of choosing a topic, doing the experiment, writing up the reports, making the tri-fold posterboard of impressive pictures and colorful charts, and presenting to the class. 

In elementary school, I got a lot of help from my parents on this.  Probably too much help to be honest, but it was fun and I did learn a lot.  We worked together to grow sugar crystals in jars (that was fourth grade), study static electricity in fifth grade, and then in sixth grade to test the effectiveness of various brands of toothpaste on stains.  To do this, we made several plaster molds and stained them with coffee, tea, juice, etc.   Then we brushed them using the various brands of toothpastes to see which one worked the best.  Pretty cool.  (Sorry, I cannot remember who was the winner just now.  I’ll get back to you.)

In middle school, I lost interest in the scientific process, my parents stopped helping so much, and my experiments became much less controlled and much less interesting.  In the seventh grade, I “tested” which type of birdseed the birds in our yard preferred, though I really don’t remember how I even pretended to have gathered usable data on that one.  And then in eighth grade, riding that laziness as long as I could, I basically did the exact same project again determining which type of cat food our outdoor cats preferred.  Since they would eat just about anything, I assume there was a lot of fudging of numbers there.  At this point it was obvious I would never be a scientist.

Then, in the ninth grade, we were suddenly allowed to work on our projects in pairs.  (I know now, from my own teaching experience, that Ms. Mitchell probably realized that if she let us work with our friends, we would be happy and she would have half the projects to grade.  It’s a smart plan.) I partnered up with my friend Michele (who did later end up in a scientific field by the way) and she suggested we do our project on RADON. 

Radon (in case you don’t know) is a chemical element.  This noble gas, which is radioactive, colorless, odorless, and tasteless, occurs naturally as the decay product of uranium or thorium and is one of the densest substances that remains a gas.  Radon is considered a health hazard and is responsible for the majority of the public exposure to ionizing radiation.  I know all that because I just googled it.  Trust me, I did not remember it from the ninth grade.  Instead, I poorly paraphrased Wikipedia. There’s a lot more, but I got bored after the first two paragraphs.

The truth is, I don’t know really what radon is and I never did.  Michele had heard about it somewhere and it sounded interesting and smart and we decided to choose it for our topic.  The amount of actual learning that occurred (on my part anyway) was like negative two.  Yeah, I am pretty sure that I memorized a couple of incorrect pieces of information about radon during the process, thus lessening my understanding of the subject.  Go me.

Michele was gung-ho though, and I followed her lead.  We were both good students, excellent students actually, girls who did all their homework and made A’s easily and worked hard.  Leaders in the classroom.  Academic role models.  So, that’s probably why our teacher didn’t catch on to the fact that our project stunk—she left us alone and trusted us to do good work while she helped the strugglers.  (Again, as a teacher, I’ve been there.)

So, unsupervised and unadvised, Michele and I decided that our scientific inquiry would be:  Does population affect the amount of radon found in houses?  (Whatever your thoughts on that, hold your horses.)  And our experiment would consist of this:  We would buy six radon detector kits (which couldn’t have been cheap—a quick search just brought up some that were $15 each) and we would send them to six different homes, three in large cities and three in small towns, and compare the results.  I think our hypothesis was that larger cities would have more radon than small towns and I am sure that we furrowed our brows and nodded at this a lot.

I’ll spare you the boring details.  None of the houses contained radon.  Or at least, four of them for sure did not.  We never even received two of the tests back.  (I think we sent them to distant relatives and other disinterested subjects.  These were the days before email and free long distance calling, so it was much harder back then to pester people into sending you their radon levels.)  

Although the absence of radon should have been good news for our friends and family, we were disappointed.  In conclusion, our results were inconclusive.   However, that did not stop us—none of the aforementioned absurdity stopped us—from winning second place in the school science fair.  That’s right.  I’ve got a certificate somewhere to prove it.

You see, the thing was… there were only three projects entered that year in the field of environmental chemistry… and the third one must have been pretty bad.  I’m sure the judges felt just as awkward handing over that prize ribbon as we did receiving it.  To this day, Michele and I still laugh over the ridiculousness of our project and our prestigious ranking.  We both remember clearly the judge at the fair asking us, after hearing our explanation of our graphs and findings, “So… what made you think that population would have anything to do with radon levels?”  I think I let Michele fake and blush her way through that embarrassing answer. 

The radon farce was my final appearance at the science fair, which is probably for the best.  In high school, I took Anatomy, where Michele and I partnered up once again to dissect a cat (something I handled very well since once you get the skin off it really doesn’t look like a cat) and then AP Chemistry, where I relied on my friend Bruce to get me through the labs and equations.  (Coincidentally, Bruce spent most of his “free” time in class placing the six-inch metal rulers on the hot plates until they became malleable enough to stretch a millimeter or two before tossing them back in the drawer.  Yeah.  If you failed your Chemistry lab final at Richardson High School after the year 1995 and don’t know why, maybe now you do. )

Between antics my prankster friend helped me come to the right conclusions in my experiments and stay “PH-balanced”.  (There you go Bruce, there’s a little inside joke for you since I ratted you out about the rulers.)  I won’t go into the silly “PH-balanced” reference here, but it has to do with a guest teacher we had when our regular teacher was out on maternity leave.  This guy was very enthusiastic about his life choices and he told us that if we were not devoting our careers to science, we were wasting our lives.  Since I had already decided to be either an English teacher or a writer, he lost all my respect in that moment.  Enter Bruce.  He could listen to this freak, stretch rulers, and help me with my homework all at the same time.  And his ability to multi-task got me through AP Chemistry.

But none of these stories, as entertaining or as shocking as they may be, can compare to my dad’s science fair experiences.  Because, back in 1953, good ol’ Dad blew up the fifth grade.

(To be continued…)


  1. Love reading your blog. You're doing great. Can't wait to hear your dad's story. ; )

  2. Carie,
    You could have given me an out and left the names off so I could have claimed to be your science fair partner. PH-balanced - that got you a big smile.

    If it makes you feel better, I should have just become a mechanic and not have spent 17 of my years persuing and applying an electrical engineering degree. Perhaps Mr. Bill was right.

    As for the rulers, it would be 1994 or after, since that was our 92-93 school year.

    Will wait patiently for your father's escapades as the pre-unibomber.

    1. I can't believe I spelled pursue, persue. My apologies to all.

    2. Wow, no remorse even now for the ruler prank, huh? You're cold... Oh yeah, and I recently found blue post-it notes in the following places: My Scrabble Game, under the cushion of my desk chair, and in Cookie Monster's mouth. I would be cursing you, but actually you have inspired a character in my book. So thank you.

  3. Remorse? I have taught students a valuable lesson. You can't always trust what your eyes tell you. "That's a 6-inch ruler." Oh, is *it*?

    A character?! I'm overjoyed! I anxiously await how I inspired your book's protagonist - Secret Asian Man.

    1. This may be why we had wooden rulers when I was in chemistry.

  4. I was even less scientific that you, Carie, but I didn't realize it at the time. I thought I was a genius and all I wanted to do was be better than my classmate Kenan. The one science fair I recall I tested which type of kite would fly the best. smh. So lame. Did not win. I think I got a B.