I’m basically the last person on the planet who should write a guide to surviving the science fair. I have helped my kids with six science fair projects so far, and we have barely lived to tell the tale each time. Of all the things I dread about my future adventures in parenting (including teaching them to drive, dating, and having “the talk”), the 16 science fair projects I have in my future constitute the worst agony I can imagine. Seriously. I’d rather have a root canal . . . and a colonoscopy . . . on the same day, performed by the same doctor.
I know some of you goody-two-shoes moms are chiding me for my lack of enthusiasm for project-based learning. You have clearly not participated in the misery that is the science fair. The science fair is no ordinary project and should not be treated as such. If you want to survive the science fair without a prison sentence, pay attention to some pointers:
- You know how people always tell you that you should get the epidural when you’re in labor because there’s no gold stars for being in pain? The same is true for the science fair (at least where I live). This year, my step-daughter chose to build a gel electrophoresis, and my son tested the height of a basketball’s bounce on different surfaces. The gel electrophoresis project took weeks (and many, many tears). The ball dropping took five minutes if you round up. Both kids received the same score. The moral of this story is: pick the easiest project you can find.
- The advice to pick something that interests you does not apply to the science fair. See number one on this one. The gel electrophoresis interested my step-daughter for about the first step of 127 steps in the process. Now she hates anything to do with genetics research. Take my advice. Pick the easiest topic you can find. What difference does it make if your kid is going to get the same grade whether you slave away for months or you throw something together the night before it’s due? In my kids’ school, the grade is based on following the steps in the scientific process, not on the merit of the research itself. So bounce some basketballs, test some paper airplanes, or drop some eggs from a ladder. No one will be impressed by your gel electrophoresis anyway.
- Before you submit the topic to the teacher for approval, check to make sure that the needed supplies are readily available. The gel electrophoresis project was obviously traumatic for us because it keeps coming up. The instructions for the project clearly said that deionized water would be readily available at supermarkets. Well someone lied. We had to cheat because we didn’t have time to order deionized water from a specialty store. Do yourself a favor. Don’t trust the instructions. Make sure you can get what you need when you need it.
- Procrastination happens. Accept it, and move on. You and your kid are going to promise yourselves that you won’t wait until the last minute, but you will. Wal-Mart will be sold out of the reasonably priced science fair boards, and you’ll have to fork out $30 for the deluxe science fair board at the office supply store. You’ll resent your kid for robbing you of the six coffees from Starbucks you could have had. Your parent-child relationship will be much better off if you simply accept that the procrastination is part of the process.
- I have zero creativity, but kids’ boards always look pretty awesome for two things I learned when I completed my own science fair in 1989. My partner’s dad was a graphic designer, and I’ve never forgotten what he taught us (oh and we won the fair—which should not be your goal because then you just have to compete again). Nothing looks good on a white background, so splurge on a colored board. Any color works, but I think black is best. Buy some duct tape and make a border. Seriously. Borders constitute the difference between the projects of the kids’ whose parents love them and the ones whose parents don’t.
- Invest in tissues. Lots of them. You will cry. Your spouse will cry. Your kid doing the science fair will cry. Your kids who have thankfully escaped the torture this year will cry. No one will escape the misery. Again, it’s part of the process. Prepare for it and know that this step that cannot be skipped.
- Buy some wine in bulk. You’ll need it to drown your sorrows along the way and when it’s all over to reward yourself.
Finally, keep this list handy for next year when you have to do it all again, and consider yourself lucky. You probably only have to do the science fair a couple of times. Between my four kids who have not yet outgrown the science fair, I have 16 more rounds of this in my future.