science fair

I imagine that in the earliest days of human education – like, the teacher is standing up there in a leopard skin tunic with crazy hair and waving around a petrified femur, pointing and ugg’ing at cave drawings – there were probably three things in that cave classroom that we still use today.


1.) Chalk.

A lotta schools use smart boards but trust me, there are tons of schools still using chalk out there. Chalk! We launched a dog into space sixty years ago, and we can’t improve on chalk?

2.) Chalk Erasers.

You can’t have chalk without chalk erasers. Remember those? Teachers would make you stay after class to bang the chalk out? What did that do except mix chalk dust with the asbestos and give kids black lung? I’m guessing back in the cave days they probably didn’t have the technology of today so they just used their hands as chalk erasers. Or maybe there were high tech cave schools that used wooly mammoth pelts as erasers. Think about it – you kill a wooly mammoth, that’s probably, like, 12-18 months worth of chalk erasers. (Maybe more??)

And the last thing they had back then…

3.) The tri-fold cardboard stand.

The ones used in science fairs. I know this because there is literally no other way to create a science fair project than those tri-fold cardboard stands. It’s the only reason science was even invented! No tri-fold cardboard stands, no dog in space.

With Finn and Lucy, we’ve bought our fair share of tri-fold cardboard stands. And we just did again, since we’re back in science fair season.

Finn, in 4th grade, is teaming up with his friends Alex and Magnus to do something around sustainable energy, because this generation wants to save the planet. I haven’t seen it yet because they’re working at Magnus’s house. All I know is that they made a battery out of a potato. And I know that sentence sounds like MadLibs. (“For the science fair the boys made a (noun) out of a (noun).”) But apparently you can really do that so if you can’t find a battery for your remote just go ahead and shove a potato in there.

If kids are making potato batteries, I’m feeling pretty good about the next generation’s ability to bail us out of this planet mess we’re in.

And as I understand it, our planet is a wee bit of a mess, environmentally speaking.

Look, our parents’ generation did us no favors on that front. Cars were dirty emission-spewing machines. And since that apparently wasn’t enough carbon monoxide being belched into world they all grabbed cigarettes and started sucking in tobacco fire just to breathe more devil-air into our atmosphere. Then that wasn’t enough so they shoved cheese into aerosol cans and made disposable cups out of solidified chemicals that would melt the earth’s crust.

Take that, planet!

In fairness, it’s not like my generation was any better.

The Hummer? All you could do was drive from gas station to gas station and hope your kid’s soccer practice was somewhere along the way and your kid could just tuck and roll out the tiny military-sized windows meant to ward off sidewinder missiles. Do they even make cars that are normal size anymore? We have 2 kids and we have two SUVs. What are we doing? Back in my parents’ day you had two cars that size, your neighbors would think you owned a moving company or something. I’m also using Keurig pods to make my coffee at work. I have a cup of coffee and throw away trash. That’s no good, people.

So I think I need to do better. And watching Finn with this science project with his potato batteries and generators made from nails and copper wire? I’m telling you, it’s downright inspiring.

Lucy’s in 2nd grade. She started science fair stuff last year with a typical Lucy project back in 1st grade, which was how M&M’s melt. Because she wanted to eat M&Ms because they’re delicious. But I’ll tell you, she learned a ton about convection heat and conduction heat and how microwaves and sunlight and boiling and stoves work.

This year, Liz and Lucy came up with the theme of Smelly Science. Of course. And same thing. We worked on it together, watching videos about the brain and how smell works.

Then Lucy walked the family through how the sense of smell is different from the other senses because the others ones are routed through the thalamus. She explained to Finn how smell goes right into the olfactory bulb and because of the proximity to the amygdala and hippocampus, which are responsible for emotions and memories, scents and memories get jumbled up.

Lucy now knows all that. She loved learning it. She also loved putting smelly things in containers so people will have to smell them.

It’s amazing working with your kids on this stuff. You get to relearn things with them. Last night Finn was reminding me how to multiply fractions. Lucy was talking to me this morning about how elephants can smell water 12 miles away. (Then she acted out being an elephant smelling water 12 miles away. She really got into character. No offense to her but nobody’s gonna mistake her for an elephant. Whatever, she’s got other good qualities.)

So the strangest thing for me through all this is how much I’ve loved doing science fair projects with them.

Here’s what I think is behind that:

I use my brain in pretty predicable ways every day. NYU Stern stuff, and writing stuff. That’s where I get stretched.

But with my kids, I get to cut out photos and animals and help glue them to a board. And figure out how to divide fractions. And make arrows pointing to different parts of the brain diagram Lucy made.

I don’t know if it’s a chance to relive my youth or relive it alongside my kids, and get to just be peers with them for a little while.

Either way, it breaks my brain out of a pattern.

Liz talks about making new neural pathways and how that keeps us living longer. I think that’s what I’m doing. Making new pathways with my family. And that’s pretty awesome.

Especially as they save the planet from my junk.

By | 2019-03-27T10:02:31-04:00 March 27th, 2019|15 Comments


  1. Liz March 27, 2019 at 8:10 am - Reply

    I actually did mistake Lucy for an elephant when she was smelling water 12 miles away…she’s very convincing!!

    • Conor March 27, 2019 at 10:01 am - Reply

      That may be your mom bias. She gets an A for effort, I’ll say that..

  2. Another Liz March 27, 2019 at 8:27 am - Reply

    Did you really intend to say “relieve my youth” or should that be “relive”…? Asking for a friend…

    • Conor March 27, 2019 at 10:02 am - Reply

      Can it be both?

  3. Heather March 27, 2019 at 9:54 am - Reply

    I did my fair share of Aqua Net to kill the planet. I’m right in there with you. Go 80s!

    • Conor March 27, 2019 at 10:02 am - Reply

      Aqua net!!

  4. Kim March 27, 2019 at 11:36 am - Reply

    My dad help me makeMy second grade science project.: A clay heart with red and blue fluid pumping and through it. That was an unforgettable interaction for me and will be the same for your two !

    • Conor March 27, 2019 at 11:54 am - Reply

      Kim, I love that. My dad helped me make a diorama of the planets in a box, styrofoam balls hanging from strings. That was a million years ago and I still remember it! Thanks for your encouragement!!

  5. Linda Grimes March 27, 2019 at 1:23 pm - Reply

    Oh, you’re such a tease! You tell us about Lucy’s impression of an elephant smelling water 12 miles away and we don’t get to see it? Where was your iPhone when all of this was happening?

    • Conor March 27, 2019 at 2:27 pm - Reply

      Huge mistake, clearly.

  6. susan flanagan March 27, 2019 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    I never want your blogs to end, always wishing for just a litle bit more. I learned quite a bit from this blog, Conor.

    • Conor March 27, 2019 at 5:52 pm - Reply

      Thanks for reading Sue!!

  7. dawn March 28, 2019 at 11:17 pm - Reply

    My kid just made an invention that is smack-your-head simple and incredibly useful, and uses solar power! Watching them “defend” their projects to other adults is quite inspiring – yeah, we get to geek out vicariously.

  8. Pat M April 3, 2019 at 6:37 pm - Reply

    No kidding, first year teaching and I discover I’m allergic to chalk dust! Whiteboards were just coming in and it took 3 years to convince anyone to put one in my classroom. Which was bittersweet, because I loved illustrating my lessons in colored chalk. Anyway, the students in my special ed class we’re afraid to participate in the school science fair, but I talked them into having their own later on and promised they didn’t have to invite anyone they thought would laugh at them. It was a hit! I don’t think they were ever afraid again!

    • Pat M April 3, 2019 at 6:39 pm - Reply

      *were…darned auto”correct”

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(Liz wrote this post today for a Christian affinity group…