This is excerpted from my recent article in Make Magazine. Is there a problem with the way science is taught? Are schools overprotective? What do experiences like these mean for science education?
When my son Andy was 12 years old, he entered his junior high school science fair. His challenge was to invent something new and useful. To Andy, the science contest was big deal. There was a great deal of schoolyard prestige attached to the event. He badly wanted to win, but inventing is hard work. Inventing something useful is even harder. And inventing something new and useful when you’re 12 is really, really hard.
He thought about it for a while and, after various aborted attempts and blind alleys, came up with the idea of a self-buttering toaster. What a brilliant idea from such a young person! (I readily admit my fatherly bias.) The device Andy designed was intricate yet simple: a wood and steel construction that held a slice of bread at an angle in front of a carefully wound matrix of nichrome wire heating elements. While the bread toasted, the heat from the wires melted a glop of butter on a perforated metal holder positioned over the bread. The butter dripped through the holes and on to the toasting bread. Voila! There was a slice of automatically buttered toast. By my lights, this was a pretty terrific invention for a sixth grader.
The evening of the fair approached, and Andy and I looked forward with anticipation and excitement to a night of glory. The judges, a collection of teachers and parent volunteers, methodically walked up and down each aisle. They asked questions, measured things with rulers, made notes on clipboards, and generally maintained a judgelike demeanor. When the judges came to Andy’s table, the toaster worked perfectly. With self-assurance and a smile, he handed each judge a slice of warm, buttery Wonder Bread for a snack.
The Self Buttering Toaster ---->
But when the winners were announced, Andy’s name wasn’t called. Crestfallen, he approached the judges and asked, “Why didn’t I get a ribbon?”
“Well, Andy,” said a judge, “we thought your machine was dangerous. After all, it uses electricity and it gets very hot.”
“Of course it does. It’s a toaster,” he protested. “It’s supposed to get hot and use electricity. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a toaster.” Unswayed by logic, the judges would not reconsider.
So who won? First place went to a girl who made a cap and vest for her hamster. Second place went to a boy who “made” radar.
“Hamster clothes? That’s so lame,” Andy whispered to me during the award ceremony. “And that the second place kid didn’t invent radar. He just cut out some pictures of radar antennas and glued them to a poster board.”
[Life imitates art: In the 4th season episode of the Simpsons called "Duffless, " Nibbles the hamster plays a significant role in the outcome of the Springfield Elementary science fair]
<--- Bart Simpson science project: Can Hamster Fly Planes?
Andy graduated from college last year with a major in archeology and a minor in African languages. Is his technology-light choice of major a result of his science contest experience? Perhaps not, but I sometimes wonder how losing to a hamster hat influenced his future.