Saturday, December 03, 2011

Aspiring Young Minds

Cleaning out some old stuff from my parents' house, I ran across this memory.  It's an early one where I became somewhat skeptical and cynical of education.

The left hand side is the blue "1st Prize" ribbon I won at my 5th grade science fair, qualifying me for an entry into the Fayette County (KY) science fair.  My dad is a civil engineer specializing in things like water and environmental hazards. He put together an experiment in which we looked at how various levels of oil contamination kill fish.  I remember a particularly long Saturday at his office lab where we measured precise amounts of water and oil to put into probably five separate containers. I remember the annoyance of having to tare the scale and to get the water amounts absolutely equal in weight with a medicine dropper. One container had no oil, and the others contained gradually increasing amounts.  We placed equal amounts of his lab minnows (of which there were probably thousands in his lab) in each container. Over the next several days or weeks, I measured the survival/death rates of the fish.  

I don't remember if we calculated a regression equation for the relationship between oil contamination and fish casualties, but we probably plotted some graphs.  My dad made sure it was high quality.  

The red ribbon on the right is the "Participant" ribbon from the county science fair. I remember having to spend another even longer Saturday near the Civic Center downtown as judges went through hundreds of projects.  I never met the judges, I think perhaps we were required to leave while judging occurred. When we returned to the hall in the evening, I remember some of my classmates getting prize ribbons but mine had this blank red ribbon on it and a "disqualified" remark. Disappointment.  One judge was at least kind enough to write me a note-- he said my project was good but killing something was against the rules, so I had to be disqualified (and should have been disqualified at the school level as well, but apparently my teacher and school judges didn't know the rules. We certainly didn't know there was such a rule.). 

You'll notice that my name is even spelled wrong on the certificate, adding insult to injury. 

I was slightly confused-- why was it real science and perfectly okay when my dad runs these kinds of tests all the time in his lab, but not real science when 5th graders do it?  (I seem to remember later dissecting frogs and pigs in school, am I to suppose that they died a natural death or something?)  The irony that the event was sponsored by the local water company didn't hit me until now.  

I have now trashed the items in the picture, but they can live on here for posterity, and maybe be useful for when Elias is in the 5th grade and runs into such barriers and setbacks to his intellectual curiosity.  I wonder what age he'll be when I finally tell him "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach."  My guess is that I was in the 5th grade when my dad told me that. 

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