Memoirs of a Science-Instructing Desperado (Part 1 of n)

Wednesday, 16 May 2007 — 5:01pm | Science

Surely, by now, we’ve all seen the commercials where an elite and well-dressed tag team shows up at someone’s door with the mantra “Wii would like to play,” leads an attentive crowd in an exhilirating and playful experiment, and drives off into a satisfying sunset. Now imagine this scenario with science projects instead of Nintendo consoles, and elementary schools instead of households equipped with high-definition TVs. This is my job.

From a sixth-grade workshop about flight: We discuss air resistance and drag and demonstrate how a piece of paper travels farther when thrown if it is crumpled up. Then we guide the class in the construction of paper airplanes, which they were free to decorate with felt markers, and hold a contest to design the plane that would fly the farthest. The resident keener, who knew the answer to every question we asked in our presentation, crumples up a sheet of paper and asks me if it counts. No, I tell him, it doesn’t count. He promptly affixes a tiny pair of wings to his paper ball, and then he chucks it. Another child – no more than eleven years of age, remember – walks up to me with a paper glider covered in dollar-signs and assorted, uh, bling, and asks: “Can we have a contest for the most pimped-up plane?”

From a second-grade workshop about insects: We give the kids assorted goods like marshmallows, pipe cleaners and coloured tissue paper in order for them to construct their own bugs. They finish early, and we have some time at the end of the class to ask them to tell stories about each of their bugs and what makes them special. One boy (about seven years old, I’m guessing) raises his hand and shows off his rather elongated bumblebee. “My insect is the Lord of the Bees,” he declares. I ask him to tell the class its name; I’d heard it earlier, and thought it was well worth sharing. “His name,” he says with total seriousness, “is Montflyington the Third.”

From a fourth-grade workshop about light: At the end of the class, a girl comes up to me with her agenda and asks for an autograph. I sign her notebook with my name and my trademark blowfish insignia; if you’ve ever received a letter or postcard from me, you’ve probably seen some variation of the latter. But remembering proper autograph protocol from all the books I got signed this year, I asked the girl for her name, so I could leave a personalized message. She was roughly nine years old, so it shouldn’t take a genius to figure out wherefore her name was Xena. I don’t know about you, but I was both amused and depressed.

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