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Mack Williams: Science fairs

The other day, some kids were talking about science projects at the science museum where I work. Of course, this took me back, as do many other things, to Granite Quarry School.

Four years at East Rowan and four years at Appalachian had their own formative benefits; but even though 4 + 4 usually equals 8, the eight years I spent at Granite Quarry add up to much more than that in their importance to me. (Both “old math” and “new math” handle numbers, but this kind of “Granite Quarry Math” also handles memories and feelings.)

I remember the science fairs in Granite’s upper grades, and those in my years at East as being very exciting!

When Don’s Rockers practiced on our front porch in the late 1950s (brother Joe on drums), rock n’ roll was “happening right there,” and at these school science fairs, science was “happening right there” too!

The fact of some being better science students than others was reflected in their projects.

I made good grades in English, history and science, but didn’t have an “experimental” mind as far as making an in-depth science project.

Sometimes, my science project consisted of the clichéd “styrofoam solar system,” arrived at by carving styrofoam into spheres, making a “static cling mess” all over the floor and basically “everywhere,” due to the nature of the miniature spheres which constitute a block of Styrofoam. (It just now strikes me that those mini-spheres could be used to illustrate how everything is made of atoms.)

Perhaps, the Creator did similarly (not with Styrofoam, of course), since we get warnings from scientists on a fairly regular basis about the Earth being possibly threatened by a piece of “Creation’s leftover junk.”

Back then, I constructed another science fair cliche’ (still popular), the modeling-clay crafted (sometimes paper mache) volcano, powered via Alka-Seltzer.

Speaking of clichés, the Styrofoam solar system and the clay-paper mache volcano are, to the science fair, what the fire-baton twirling, Russian Sabre Dance (Rimsky-Korsakov)-accompanied contestant once was to the Miss America Pageant.

Other volcano science projects are powered with baking soda and vinegar, or diet coke and Mentos. If you want to make the “lava” more realistic (dangerous), you could microwave the vinegar or the coke to the boiling point (more correctly illustrating magma’s “thermal” nature”) and tell everyone to “Stand back!” But since modern-day milquetoasts have banned the Bunsen burner from some high school science labs (with “liability” in mind) “nuked” vinegar or diet coke probably wouldn’t fly either.

The high school science projects at East were on a higher level than those of the lower grades, and most were very well thought out. Those mid- to late-1960s projects which could be described as having been formulated by a “true scientist” many times had the following names attached: “McCombs” (Steve), “Barringer” (Mike), “Ribelin” (Norman), and “Williams” (not me, Larry).

Theirs were always some of the best science projects; but unfortunately, I remember some, made by others, involving seed germination and plant growth which went “awry,” or as Robert Burns wrote: “agley.”

A few of these “flora-related” projects appeared as if the experiment’s failure was simply due to a lack of watering, making the whole go from “Earth-green” to “Martian-reddish brown.”

In some, and in a paraphrase: “Science could have been snatched from the jaws of defeat” with a comparison to how life had possibly died out on the Red Planet. They might have also been developed to illustrate how man’s farming practices contributed to the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl (with an attached audio-visual element in which the pressing of “play” would activate a recording of Bing Crosby’s “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”).

There would have been no disgrace in this, i.e., before Edison came up with the filament which made the light bulb commercially marketable, he experienced thousands of failures (paraphrase of Gertrude Stein: “An experiment is an experiment is an experiment is an experiment”).

Over the years, scores of styrofoam science-fair solar systems have been “drawn” into  those “black holes” which constitute the landfills of Rowan County. (I Googled the one in Woodleaf, and the rules exclude washing machines, refrigerators, etc., but not solar systems or volcanoes.)

Within these deep pits also lie scores of dormant science-fair volcanoes, never to erupt again.

Would that likewise could be said of Yellowstone!

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