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Helping kids with the science fair: One woman’s story

My next door neighbor is my best friend in town.  We meet up several times a week for popsicles, hot chocolate, or chit chat about what’s been going on in our lives.  His name is Elias and he’s 11.

Did I mention I don’t get out much?

It doesn’t matter, he’s as entertaining as any adult, and full of jokes and wild ideas.  You should hear his plans for the shed in his back yard… it involves a two-story swimming pool, a fire pit, and tiles made out of natural sandstone.  He’s a whiz at doing math in his head (but not questions about time).  He loves electronics, making up stories, and mapping out routes in his head.  Elias has Asperger’s Syndrome.

I won’t even pretend to know what this means from Elias’ point of view, or what it’s like to be his mother.  He and I have a different sort of relationship… but I do know this: he struggles in school and gets picked on a lot.  So much so that he now hates school.  I don’t have to pretend that this makes me sad.

As with all the students at the local elementary (and around the country!) it is Science Fair season.  Elias’ mom knows a lot about Asperger’s and a lot about her son, but she was completely intimidated when Elias came home with instructions for doing a science fair project.  I, however, was thrilled.  Words like ‘body wrap’,  and ‘cocktail dress’, and ‘manicure’ intimidate me, but I like the word ‘science’ just fine. Elias and I have been working on his project for two weeks.  Secretly, I’m hoping that there will be one little piece of school that he might associate with Fun instead of Dread.

On this blog we’ve written a bit about the science fair before, but focused on how to pick a project with your kiddo.  What we haven’t talked about the process of doing the project.  Just in case there are other moms who are thrown off their game by the word ‘Science’, I wanted to tell you the story of our science project, so that you could see that they really aren’t that bad.

Elias got a rocket launcher for Christmas.  When we first talked about the Science Fair, he knew that he either wanted to do something with the rocket launcher, or something with radios for his project (he loves radios)… specifically he wanted to build a radio.  While building a radio is an excellent project (and one we’ve started separately), it didn’t allow him to do any experimenting.  So I suggested we stick to the rocket launcher for the science fair.  He was okay with that.

The First Day, Elias came over with his notebook, and his rocket launcher.  We put it together… turns out it is nothing more than a fancy tube.  You connect an empty plastic bottle to one end, connect a rocket made out of magazine paper to the other, and stomp on the bottle.  The air is forced through the tube, into the rocket, and the rocket launches.  Very basic.

We built a rocket, tromped out into the foot of snow in the backyard, and launched it into the air with great fanfare, a major countdown, and an emphatic stomp of Elias’ booted foot.  It went about five feet… very anticlimactic.  Elias and I stared at the rocket, silent.

“I wonder how we make it go farther?”, he mused.

And there we had our project.

We came back inside, dried out our (his) feet, and did some thinking.  I explained that much of science starts by asking a question that begins with the words “I wonder…” and that he was clearly a natural scientist.

“Like you?” he asked.

“I suppose so…” I said.

I asked him how we might make the rocket go farther, and he listed off several ideas:  stomp on the bottle harder, put a better nose cone on the rocket, stomp on the bottle harder  (he really liked that one).

I pushed him to think of more things that might influence how high the rocket goes, and he stared at me blankly.  Two ideas clearly seemed like enough to him.  I gave him a sheet of paper and told him to draw me a picture of a rocket.  At the same time I drew my own picture of a rocket (making a big deal out of keeping my drawing a secret from him).  When he had finished we compared the two drawings.  His was big, mine was little, his had square fins, mine had rectangular fins, mine had a giant cone, his was little, his had squiggles on it, mine had stars.  I asked him to point out all of the differences he saw, and write them each down.  Then I explained that all of these things were what we call “variables–things that vary”.  Everything that varies may be a reason why the rocket goes a certain height, and changing them may change how high the rocket goes.  He seemed to get that idea with no problem.

Then I drew a picture of the whole rocket launching system and asked him to point to other areas we might be able to change:  he pointed to the bottle.  I asked him to be specific.

“The color?” he suggested.

“Sure!” I encouraged, and wrote Color of Bottle on to our list of variables.  Then he suggested the size of the bottle.

“Of course!” I beamed, and added it to the list. By now we had a long list of variables, so I introduced the idea of a hypothesis next.

“How do you think each of these will change how high the rocket goes? Will a larger rocket go higher or not as high?” I asked.

“Not as high…” he concluded.

We went through each, with him dreaming up the likely outcome for each change.  And then I gave him his homework.  Pick his three favorite variables, and come up with hypotheses for each, written out in full sentences.  I was not hopeful that he’d actually do it, but mentioned that we couldn’t proceed with rocket launching until we’d worked out our hypotheses.

Lo and behold, that was enough incentive.

The Second Day he showed up with three hypotheses  scrawled on a sheet of paper:  skinnier nose cones would make the rocket go higher, a bigger bottle would make the rocket go higher, the color of the bottle would make it go higher.  Granted, they could be improved upon, but it was a start.

“Which do you want to test first?” I asked.

“Bottle size.” he decided.

We made a supplies list (bottles and magazine) and headed to the store.  Amazingly, we found bottles ranging from single-serving size through 2-liter size.  Plenty for some experimenting.  I’ll admit that at this point I was worried that we’d never get a rocket to go more than ten feet (boooorrrrring), and spent the whole trip to the store trying to dream up a back up plan.

Before we started experimenting we decided to also modify our original rocket a bit, settling on a smaller, sturdier design that might stand up to wet snow a little better.

The Third Day we met was the most difficult.  I had hardest time helping him to understand data collection.  He wanted to randomly launch rockets, just for fun.  (Well who wouldn’t?)  I tried to convince him that without a plan of attack we wouldn’t be able to answer our question.  He didn’t really seem to care a whole lot.  I had hoped to make him want the answer, without my urging.  The thrill of stomping on bottles won out over my urging… I finally had to get firm, and just tell him that we would be doing this in structured way “Controlling all variables”, and that was that.  I don’t think he even heard me say control.

We painted a giant yardstick in the snow with spray paint (he liked that part), and set up our rocket-launching station at one end.  I insisted on using a dowel firmly planted in the snow to keep the angle of the launch the same for each one (again, Elias didn’t care about this).  We started with the bottle of mid-size… the one you drink and think of as a single serving, but the back tells you it is two.  The rocket flew 80 feet!  We were stunned.  As silent as when it had only gone five feet.

“Whoa…” we finally said in unison.  ”Let’s do it again!”

And so we did; being sure to write down how far it had gone each time, and the size of the bottle.

It took us two days to try all the bottles, and to do it several times with each bottle.  He seemed to intuitively understand why we had to do it multiple times per bottle.

When we were done, we went back inside for dry feet and some left over soda from the bottles we’d bought.

“And what shall we do with this now?” I asked Elias.

“Put it on a poster board?” he suggested.

I drew a picture of a poster board and had him draw on what he thought others ought to know.  We decided to put pictures on one side, the hypothesis in the middle.  We’ll add in our materials (supplies list) and methods.  And then we decided to use a ‘picture’ to illustrate our data.  I went over graphs with him (which it turns out he’d seen before in class), and with some explanation, I explained (roughly) the idea of using the average value for our graph.  I was happy to see that he knew to put the bottle sizes in the ascending order.  When we meet next, he’s going to show me his calculations, and we’ll put together the graph.

And the best part?  What we thought was going to happen didn’t happen!  The bigger bottles didn’t go nearly as far as the littler bottle.  So interesting!  Elias has to come up with three reasons why this might be before next we meet.  (This is what we’ll put on the third piece of the poster board).

So Elias’ project has taken meetings on four days so far, an hour or two each time.  We’ll likely meet two more times, and then he’ll have a finished project.  There was lots of time for dilly-dallying, eating snow, and making snow angels in with the actual rocket launching and science brain storming.  And there was plenty of time for fun.  When our rockets got soaking wet and failed to launch, we laughed til we cried (Elias loves slapstick humor and unexpected outcomes, and I love when Elias laughs).

The cool thing about science projects is that the emphasis on right and wrong is completely different than it is with other subjects.  There is no right or wrong outcome.  Finding things you don’t expect is exciting!  The right or wrong in science comes from setting up the experiment correctly, not in what answer you find.  For Elias, and I imagine for a lot of kids, this changes the context around failing, and can be quite liberating.

What Science Fair projects are you helping your kids with this year, and what challenges have you faced?

7 Comments so far

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  1. Angeerah

    As a mother of an autistic child, I want to thank you. What you did for him is awesome. And I am sure you took away a lot from that experience too! Children like Elias do get picked on too much because they do not interact the way neurotypical people think they should act. Rather than be accepting, NTs judge. There needs to be more people like you willing to help and be a friend. Thank you many times over!

    My husband is a chemistry professor so he will probably handle the science questions, although I do enjoy science, I’m just not as well versed as he is.

    • Angeerah, Elias and I definitely both benefited from our little project together… we’re building a ‘radio’ together now–the electronics behind it are over both of our heads, but we’re having a good time building something all the same. It is sad that so many children judge their peers so harshly… Elias thinks outside of the box so naturally; there is much to be gained by listening to him rather than writing him off. I hope you’re own child find friends and acceptance as he or she grows.

  2. Bonnie

    That was a great story. I have to look at data all day and this story made me look at what a do a little differently. Thanks to both you and Elias

  3. Your future child is so incredibly lucky!

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