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The annual science fair: fun for the whole family

Students get plenty of behind-the-scenes help. But that's not always a good thing.

By TOM MARSHALL
Published January 26, 2007


BROOKSVILLE - Behind every good science fair project, there is a very messy house.

That was the consensus Wednesday at the Hernando County Fairgrounds, where students and a good number of their behind-the-scenes helpers - parents, that is - said they were cleaning up back home following the district's annual science and engineering competition.

"The living room has been a mess for the last three weeks," said Christine Swoyer, mother of Springstead High senior Liesl. "The laminating machine is in the dining room."

Not that there wasn't a whole lot of science going on, of course.

Liesl studied "Civilian vs. Military: Psychological Effects on the Personality Using Name Analysis." Turns out there is a correlation between one's name and personality traits, both among soldiers and civilians, she said.

"If you had the name Mary and you were a boy, you might have low self-esteem," Liesl explained.

Over at the Rey household, sixth-grader Alexandra was testing different building materials to see which allowed the most wireless Internet signals to pass through.

The project involved putting a wireless router inside boxes made of steel, plywood and drywall, and then testing the signal strength using a laptop computer outside the box. As expected, steel blocked the signal most, and drywall blocked it least.

"My mom helped me a lot with the box because she's artsy," Alexandra said. "And my father is a computer whiz."

But father and daughter agreed: She was the scientist, and her parents were the occasionally-not-so-helpful lab assistants.

"We told Alexandra, 'Go do it,' " said her father, Raymond, an information technology specialist with AT&T. " 'Give it your best shot.' "

But in his role as a judge at Hernando's fair, he saw a few projects that appeared to have received substantially more adult help. In some cases, the writing was too mature, or students didn't seem to understand the things they were saying, he said.

Striking that balance - helping children complete their projects without doing the projects for them - can be hard for some parents, said Colleen Doulk, coordinator of the middle school fair and a science teacher at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics.

Students in every grade at the school are required to complete a project at home this year, after receiving substantial instruction on the scientific method and research skills.

"You have to let them discover, and for some parents that's very difficult," Doulk said.

And she should know: Her own 12-year-old did a project this year. Mom the science teacher asked for multiple rewrites and caught some flak for it.

"That's part of the process, the tears," agreed Mr. Rey.

Fran Hallet, mother of a Springstead 10th-grader, said the process of pushing students to understand science for themselves is a yearlong process for many families. "It takes over," she said.

But the final product - a student who knows that project cold - is worth it, she said.

And what did Stephen Hallet study? He can tell it to you the complicated way or the easy way.

"The Effects of Methyl Guanidine Acidic Acid on Invertebrate Organisms," he explained, before simplifying. "It makes worms bigger. And then it kills the flies if you use too much of it."

Exactly.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or 352 848-1431.