Tales from the 4th Grade Science Fair

“Can I do the science fair?”

I’ve heard this question annually for as long as I’ve had a child in grade school. Some years they’ve forgotten about it as soon as they’ve asked, or they’ve changed their minds  before we turn in the form. But several of these years they’ve proceeded with a project. That was the case this time around with the youngest child. As The Hopeless Creative, I don’t really vibe with science, yet I supported the decision.

She promptly recruited a dear friend as a partner, and they became immersed in the biggest decision of the process – The Topic. In the past, we’ve grown grass with Sprite, kept ice frozen in tiny coats of foil and felt, and tested which dog treat is best with all the neighborhood canines. That last one was my favorite, titled “Barkalicious,” and the dogs voted for the peanut butter treat. Smart puppies. PB is a gift to us all, human or beast.

This year it seemed we had used up all the best ideas, until “Just Rust!” evolved from a science experiment book. “Yes, we want to make our own rust,” they said.

Partner, Check!
Topic, Check!

Those major steps led to the scientific process, but not before a trip to Hobby Lobby for the essential display board and materials. I’m not exaggerating when I say we spent 30 minutes in the sticker aisle alone. After all, it was a tough challenge — how do you visually and creatively represent the process of purposefully making your own rust? They explored several concepts. They wanted a mascot.

A raccoon? A tool box? A robot? Yes, a robot would be the perfect spokesperson. And he should have a name. Probably Rusty. Yet, out of 1 million choices, there were no robot stickers?!? Not a problem. They would craft Rusty the Robot from shiny foil paper instead – a truly original character.

Back at home, the project came to life. The girls soaked nails in 3 variables: sand, water, and tangy rice vinegar (the type had nothing to do with the science; it was the only kind I had.)

Hypothesis: We believe the vinegar will rust the nails the most, because vinegar has acid and eats away at things.

That seemed like a perfectly reasonable guess to me, so the girls monitored the soaking nails for a week’s time and noted several observations:

The Sand – nothing happened. The nails just sat there undisturbed, much like toes stuck in the beach. No rust.

The Vinegar – it turned a bit gooey as it ate away at the coating of the nails. No rust.

The Water – they noticed the red tinge within hours. Rust! Almost instantly, it seemed.

The Partners panicked briefly over the results since their hypothesis did not pan out, until I explained… “That’s the entire point of an experiment, guys — to test your best guess and get to an answer, even if it’s not what you expected to begin with…” This reassurance generated smiles and sighs of relief.

Woah. I even surprised myself with that advice. The Hopeless Creative was vibing with science!

Regardless of the topic or the stickers on the board, the grade school science fair serves up many priceless lessons. Questioning. Estimating. Testing. Observing. Admitting and Accepting if you were Right or Wrong. All are precious life skills.

I took away some observations of my own from the girls’ simple yet fascinating test. Like those nails, we as people sit and soak in different circumstances, whether we’re lying around peacefully in the sand or we’re in a situation that eats away at us like vinegar or we’re simply underwater.

I’m experiencing all three sensations right now. I’m resting in a season of radical self-care; I’m often sleepless, which is wearing away at my peace; and during many recent days, I’m submerged in demands and decisions, and I start to seep — stress, doubt, exhaustion, all kinds of colors. Like those nails.

When life’s challenges engulf us, we should sit back and observe what’s truly happening, just as intently, enthusiastically, and curiously as 4th grade scientists. We certainly shouldn’t ignore, deny, or feel shame about what’s shaping us, and we must take personal responsibility for what’s breaking us down. Think about those nails in the water specifically. They allowed a natural process to take place within them, and they released the inevitable signs of their experience. They didn’t hide or fight their change. They accepted it and wore it like a red coat of honor. They just rusted, and they endured. So will I. So will you.

The girls did not win the science fair, an outcome that comes with even more life lessons. Despite the letdown, they gained and bonded from the event. Meanwhile, I walked away with a newfound appreciation for the science fair to replace my former dread. We will see if I’m still appreciating it by this time next year or if I’m back to hiding the flyer in the recycling bin. (I only did that once.)

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