Tag Archives: Science Fair

Confession: I hate school projects

This post will publish in the Press Democrat on Friday, Feb. 22.

I hate school projects. There. I’ve said it. I’ve often felt like it was more homework for the parents than it is for the kids. Yes, I understand that school projects are meant to be for the kids. But please tell that to the students who bring in the projects they worked on all by themselves only to be shown up by the child whose architect father built an exact replica of the Golden Gate Bridge out of toothpicks.

True story.

At any rate, I am not a parent who does my child’s project for them. But I do have to sit and hold my child’s hand from start to finish on these projects just to get them done, feeding him ideas because he just can’t come up with them on his own. I suppose these projects are meant to help kids learn in a more fun way. However, forcing a child to sit for hours during the weekend as I suffer through glue gun burns while talking him off the ledge is anything but fun.

Recently my son, Taz, brought home a packet of papers detailing the upcoming science fair. He had a choice to either do homework during this time or create an elaborate project. Of course, he chose the project because it’s “more fun” than homework. In the meantime, I suffered flashbacks of every project we’d done in his 12 years of life.

One year, Taz had to create a report on different leaves he found. He was to collect about twenty leaves, dry them, and then tell a story about where he found them. Sounds like a sweet project, doesn’t it? Wrong. Between his tears and whining and my threats that he’d never see the light of day again until this project was done, I don’t think either one of us wanted to see a leaf ever again. Even now I shudder a little when autumn comes around.

In 4th grade, Taz was given the infamous Mission project. For kids with parents who know how to build, this must have been a blast. For me, it was a really bad joke. The book he brought home from the library with the instructions on how to build a California Mission from scratch was totally wrong in all the measurements. I had to stretch my brain to capacity to figure out what the measurements were supposed to be so that the building would actually stay intact. Then I used way too much hot glue, both on my fingers and on the house, because I just couldn’t trust him with the tool.

mission

This year, my son was given a month of lead-time before the project was due. Taz had chosen an experiment that compared the growth of sugar and salt crystals, which he assured me was very quick and promised we had plenty of time to finish it. Since he is now in sixth grade, I took him at his word.

A week passed by, and then another. The science fair project was pushed to the back of my mind as it slipped off my radar. But when I received the teacher’s reminder that the project was due in five days, I began to hyperventilate. She happily noted that we were probably already done with the experiment, and just needed to finish the poster over the weekend. But we hadn’t even started. Even worse, through research we learned that sugar and salt crystals take 7-10 days to properly grow.

We were so in trouble.

Actually, the Taz was the one who was in trouble. But as his parent, I couldn’t help feeling responsible that I hadn’t pushed harder for him to get this done much sooner. I dragged him to the store to gather up all the materials he needed to finish the project and make a beautiful poster to go with it. Then the two of us went to work setting up jars of water, one with salt and one with sugar, and a stick for them to grow on in each.

The first day, the salt one began to crystallize on the stick while the sugar one did nothing. The second day, the salt one grew a tiny bit more. The sugar one did nothing. The third day, the salt one was still slowly growing while the sugar one was asleep at the wheel.

The science fair was two days away and the experiment had failed. There wasn’t enough time to start over. We were forced to make a choice – keep going and hope that something would happen in the nick of time, or scrap the whole experiment and do something completely different.

That was how we discovered which household item cleans pennies the best.

The completed poster
The completed poster

Have I mentioned how much I hate school projects?

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Teen discovers disease treatment for science fair

"What the heck?" The Taz is mystified by the results of his experiment.

For the Science Fair, my 4th grade son created a very extensive experiment to find out which can of soda would spew the most from pent up carbonation. He used a Diet Coke, a regular Coke, and Squirt. In this vital experiment, he shook each can vigorously while we all stood by and waited, camera ready to capture the defining moment when we’d find out the true results. Unfortunately soda spew can be finicky, and the carbonated soda was projected with barely a send-off. In fact, it was almost like he hadn’t shaken the soda at all. The only one that seemed to bubble and froth at all was the Diet Coke, probably from all the chemicals that deem it sugar-free. Unfortunately, some experiments just don’t turn out the way we plan.

However, sometimes they turn out better.

Not in my son’s case- that one just plain failed. But in the case of an 11th grader, his Science Fair entry had the power to change the world. While my son was preparing cans of soda for a doomed experiment, Marshall Zhang of Toronto, Canada was busy creating a science experiment for his own Science Fair. The fair’s purpose was to have teens work with mentors to create a research project. Marshall had his own idea for a project, but wanted to be able to conduct it like a real scientist. So he contacted every professor he could to be able to work in their labs.

“Most of them said ‘no’ because I didn’t have the experience I needed,” he said. “I emailed the entire list of faculty in biochemistry at the University of Toronto.” Dr. Christine Bear, the very last professor on the list, said yes.

Marshall’s focus was on Cystic Fibrosis, a devastating genetic disease of the lungs that is generally fatal once a patient reaches their teens. It creates thick mucus in the lungs that must be loosened by repeated pounding on the back. And there is no cure.

Using a supercomputer, Marshall discovered two drugs that attacked the protein responsible for CF in different areas without attacking each other – meaning they could be used at the same time. He tested them on living cells, and the results were better than he anticipated. The two compounds worked together to defeat the defective protein – and proved stronger than the CF protein.

Marshall Zhang, 16, has found a promising treatment for cystic fibrosis. (Photo: Tom Devecseri, National Research Council of Canada)

Of course, the discovery still has to be tested on the human body to see if the results can be replicated on a subject with CF. And anything could happen – including toxic or ineffective results. But the discovery of these two compounds that work together instead of against each other in the treatment of a disease is groundbreaking in itself, and opens the door for future discoveries in disease research.

But imagine if Dr. Bear had said “no”, or if Marshall had given up long before reaching out to her. It’s possible that this discovery would never have been made. To me, this is not only a show of what persistence is capable of, it’s also proof that everyone is capable of great things no matter their age, their background, or how much they’ve studied in a subject. Scientists who have been studying CF for decades were not able to discover this treatment. It took a fresh pair of eyes with a new perspective to come across a breakthrough discovery that could help save the lives of those suffering from this debilitating disease.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Marshall Zhang received first place at his Science Fair. And Dr. Bear has invited Marshall back to the lab any time he wants to continue his research.  My son? He was a participant, just like everyone else who entered the Science Fair in the 4th grade. But who knows? Maybe this experiment will inspire his own world-changing invention of an unspewable shaken soda – thus ruining practical jokes far and near.

Have you ever insisted on pushing forward with something you believed in even while those around you were negative about the possible outcome?