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Science Fair!

Monday was the science fair at school.  Chloe had her project all ready (no last minute prep!), and it was pretty cool.  Her hypothesis was “Touching school books to do homework will make your hands just as dirty as coming home from school and not washing your hands.”

As I helped her with the experiment, we came to the conclusion that the only practicable way to compare the microbe growth was to simply estimate the percentage of the agar surface area covered by colonies.  Since she was going to be estimating, I suggested that we blot out the identifying information on each Petri dish photo, to avoid biasing the estimate.  Do you know how difficult it is to explain bias and blinding to an 8 year old?  Actually, if you’re a skeptic you probably do, because I think the general populace tends to have a similar uncertain idea of what it’s all about.  At first she thought I was talking about lying.  It took a while for the idea to sink in for her – we can perceive and remember things differently depending on our expectations.  (No, I did not have her read the Alexander Skarsgard post!)

In any case, I think the blinding served its purpose, since the results came up inconclusive.  In a way, I think this is better than the experiment coming out “right” and 100% confirming the hypothesis.  I’m so glad the fair guidelines emphasis that even a failed experiment does not equate with a failed science project, and students should analyze what happened and put it in the report.  In our case, the experiment didn’t fail as such, but the inconclusive results led her to think about ways we could redo the experiment and get a clearer answer, and what factors might have influenced the outcome.  She now has first-hand experience that a small sample size means you can’t really rely on the results!  She also had some great ideas about variables that might have influenced the bacteria growth, like how much homework she had, whether some of it was on the computer, and even whether she rode a different (perhaps germier) bus home from school on a particular day.

As it turned out, she didn’t win any prizes, and we were both a little bummed.  But this project has taught her so much – clearly she’s learning to think about things in a scientific way.  She’s been introduced to the idea that our perceptions can be tricksy, and science involves avoiding perceptual pitfalls.  She learned about translating her observations into concepts and sharing those concepts with others – probably the hardest part of the project.  She struggled with writing the report, but persevered.  And maybe best of all, she learned to work on a school project a bit at a time and get it done with plenty of leeway, so it wasn’t too stressful!

The other thing that makes me proud is that her reaction to losing was to be a little upset for a few minutes, then start planning for next year’s project, and pondering how to make it a winner.  She has great spirit!  Unfortunately her current idea is a hydroelectric generator that powers a “water volcano,” which will . . . power the . . . um generator.  Yeah, it’s a perpetual motion machine.  But hell, plenty of intelligent people have fallen into that trap.  I told her to write down all her ideas, and we’ll talk about them as we get closer to the next fair.  At some point I’ll talk to her about systems running on energy, and for instance sound being an emission of energy – so if the hydroelectric generator makes sound, that means energy is leaving, which means eventually . . . I’ll try to be all Socratic and let her figure it out.  It’ll be fun.

Adventures in skeptical parenting

One Million Dollars!

We were watching someone do something magical on a TV show, and Chloe said, “People can’t really do magic, right?”  I told her about the James Randi Education Foundation and their 1 million dollar challenge.  When I told her that anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers under controlled conditions gets $1M, she immediately started plotting how to fool the judges.  “You could have something in your hand, and then have a trap door down here, and you’d go like this, and it would disappear!”  For the moment, I decided not to address the ethics of this plan, but to point out the practical drawbacks.  I told her that they require controlled conditions, so do you think they would miss the trap door?  I also told her that Randi is a professional stage magician with decades of experience, so the problem would be coming up with a trick he couldn’t see through.  She allowed that that might be difficult.

Christians & Penguins

Chloe was chattering about Christmas, the carols they’re singing at school,* and, most importantly, which Beanie Ball she wanted to buy with her allowance. She couldn’t decide between the penguin and the reindeer.  As she listed the pros and cons of each, she said, “I think most of the Christians in my class like penguins.”  Nonplussed, I said I don’t think Christianity has anything to do with penguins.  I understood that Christianity kind of has a link with reindeer: Christian–>Christmas–>Santa–>reindeer.  But I assured her that there was no Christmas-related penguin lore that I was aware of.

The same week, she read the part of Bridge to Terabithia where May Belle says, “If you don’t believe in God, you’ll be damned to hell!”  Chloe was shocked that such bad words would be in a kids’ book.  So I got to explain that “damn” and “hell” have serious meanings to some people, and not just as swear words.  Then I tried to explain the basics of substitutionary sacrifice, sin, hell, and “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.”  It’s remarkable how hard it is to convey these concepts to a child who hasn’t been indoctrinated as she grew up.  She got stuck on Jesus being Yahweh’s son and Yahweh himself at the same time.  But as she furrowed her brow and said, “That doesn’t make any sense!” I said, “Look, it’s magic, just go with it.”  She accepted that as far as it goes, and now knows a little more about Christian doctrine.  I told her it’s important to understand the beliefs of 80% of your countrymen, and she seemed to get that too.

Luckily, she didn’t ask specifics about what hell is.  The conversation was already pretty dense with new concepts, and I’m glad I didn’t have to tackle that at the same time.  When it does come up again, I plan to use Dale McGowan’s brilliant inoculation against the fear the concept could bring: “Hell is silly.”

Science fair

When Chloe comes home from school, I always tell her to wash her hands.  Recently she countered, “Why? I’m just going to do my homework and get school germs all over my hands again anyway.”  Instead of saying, “Just do what I told you,” or “OK, nevermind,” I said, “You know, we could test whether that’s true.”

Together we’ve worked out a protocol for swabbing her hands at certain times and comparing the amount of bacteria they’re harboring.  We’re going to compare and see if her hypothesis is right.  Not only will it be a kickass science fair project (timing was perfect – the fair is on 1/23), but if it turns out she’s right, I’ll lay off her about washing her hands – at least until she’s done with her homework!

*Yes, they sing carols at her public school.  No, I don’t mind.