Earlier this year, Cari came home with a packet from school and a note that explained that since she’s in third grade, she would need to complete a required science fair project. At first, I was really excited. Cari showed early interest in magnets, so I jumped on the chance to help her with something she was actually into. But in the months that followed, I (as mom) went through a ridiculous range of emotions. Thankfully, this story ends well, because if it didn’t… well, I might not be sharing it here.
Blogging is eminently more satisfying than what I should be doing… that is, helping my daughter with her first ever Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Fair project. For real. I have so many feelings. First, I have all of these uncomfortable flashbacks to elementary school, sitting at this very table, finishing some project or another while my mom gripes at me because I procrastinated. Ugh. That might be the worst part… the feelings that this project is bringing up in me. Dread. Angst. Anxiety. Reluctance. Laziness.
Then there are the feelings of frustration with myself and with Cari. I should have started this sooner. I should have found a better way to get my kid engaged. I should be kinder to my daughter when she gets bored and frustrated to keep her from shutting down. I should be tougher on my kid when she gets bored and frustrated to build her stamina. How will she ever become some important innovator without these skills? How will she ever be successful in school if I don’t instill the desire to discover, to learn in her?
Finally, there are the feelings I have as a teacher. I know that Cari should be doing this work by herself. She should be learning the scientific process. She should be engaged in inquiry. She should be doing this work. She should WANT to do this work. But she’s in third grade, and much of the content we’re working through together, the nature of magnets, how they work–that in itself is pretty complicated, involving atomic level activity that I don’t really understand myself–and questions of scientific inquiry that I don’t know how to answer. For example, the project requires that students construct a hypothesis:
The purpose of creating your hypothesis is to identify what you think will happen based on research that was collected. The hypothesis needs to be worded as an “if… then… because…” statement explaining the cause and effect relationship that is being investigated. Evidence from your research needs to be used to support and justify your thinking.
Cari wrote the following:
“If a magnet is heated, then it will be stronger because they will become warmer.”
Now, I realize there is some circular reasoning present here. I’ve worked on that with Cari. But to explain why she thinks a magnet will be stronger when it is heated requires some very complex research. In fact, the research doesn’t support that conclusion. There is no reason why a heated magnet should be stronger than a cooled magnet. But this is what my daughter wanted to study. So we studied it.
I’m not opposed to this project. Lord, I hope it helps Cari get interested in STEM, because as it stands, she’s very much her mother’s daughter, loving stories and the arts. At least she’ll have a job if she loves and excels in STEM. I’m not opposed to the time it has taken. I am opposed to the implication that my third grader could independently complete a STEM project like the one she’s been assigned with any real scientific accuracy. She doesn’t know how to effectively research scientific concepts, nor does she know how to construct a research plan. She doesn’t know how to write a hypothesis or an abstract. And I don’t know how to teach her.
We finished Cari’s project two days before it was due. I’m ashamed to admit that there were tears, not only from Cari but from me. I can only hope that Cari doesn’t remember her mother’s freak out, but the joy and pride she felt when she went to the school science fair. Because that was all her. For as much drama as the backboard caused, Cari was the one to present the information, explain the experiment to the judges, and communicate all she learned. We must have done something right.