The Ill-Prepared Housewife's guide to science fairs

I haven't been able to sleep lately. Every time I do doze off, there are giant rock monsters with multi-colored teeth, gloppy, gloopy space landscapes and visions of simple machines failing to work.

Must be science fair time.

In our elementary school, there is an optional science fair. There are no grades, no requirements and no rules. They just come into the kids' classrooms (and by they, I mean the most enthusiastic and kind moms who your kid already knows because they help out at school all the time) and hand them forms and say it will be fun.

So the kids all want to do these projects, and my first, ill-prepared instinct is to just let them. Just say, "It's all you kiddo -- go ahead and make a project." Which would work, except that they always want to do the project with someone else, so there's a certain level of friendly peer pressure to do a good job and not wind up with no project at all, which is basically what would happen if let the kids handle it. So here is what I have learned:

1. Don't assume your children have any idea what they are talking about. They get me every time with this one. They are so certain that the crystal growing kit you got for their older sister 10 years ago (and probably used some of and then lost the instructions to) is a totally viable science project. Or their science fair partner has told your child a similar story. And you know how something your friend says is way more believable than something your mom says. Long story short, the Amazing Crystal and Geode Growing Kit is really just some packets of stuff that looks like Kool Aid and basically turns into a liquid you can't drink. Any crystals you waited a week to grow are actually just the powder you started with in the first place.

2. There are kindred spirits out there. I think one of the main uses of the internet is for parents of kids who have committed to do a science project but also can't make their kid's ideas into a do-able project. Of course, there is no telling what the quality of the advice is. It seems like if the same project is mentioned several hundred thousand times on the old interweb, it probably works. I found an alternative to the geode project that called for household items and there are crystals currently growing on my counter. I have also cleverly timed them to be done at Easter, and they will serve as Easter Eggs as well.

This egg is growing crystals!

3. Prey upon the guilt of other parents. Chances are, the other parents are as invested in seeing the project done as you are. If you get the supplies and/or start the kids on something, they will probably not mind getting the presentation board or helping the kids with another aspect of the project. If you wait long enough, they might even take over the whole project, as two separate families did for two of my kids last year. I will be eternally grateful to those families.

4. Spousal support. Maybe your spouse is more versed in this particular discipline of science than you are. I can decoupage a moon model or make eggshell-based crystals with the best of them, but simple machines seem to be eluding me. When my son handed me a rough schematic of a water purifier that involved a set of pedals moving a pulley that spilled water from a fishbowl into a pipe, it seemed reasonable enough. He said he needed to take apart a bike and use the pedals, chains and gears and that seemed like a cool thing to me. I've been reading about the Maker Movement in the New Yorker, and I naturally assumed my 11-year-old was on that cutting edge, in with the diverse bunch Evgeny Morozov refers to in his article from the January 13th edition of that magazine. "They include 3-D-printing enthusiasts who like making their own toys, instruments, and weapons; tinkerers and mechanics who like to customize household objects by outfitting them with sensors and Internet connectivity; and appreciators of craft who prefer to design their own objects and then have them manufactured on demand." Sounds like my 11-year-old son, right?

But when it came to rotating that goldfish bowl, my husband said it wouldn't work the way my son envisioned it. When I asked why he said "Because. Physics."  I knew right then I was done. But the good news is, he leaned in to the project and worked with my son to make something that did work within the laws of physics and also used LEGOs.  Oh, the yin/yang goodness of marriage!

In the end, I'll probably forget all about the science fair until the last minute like I did last year. It's always mobbed with kids and parents viewing projects that ranged from rudimentary to clearly-done-by-mom/dad, but it was all in the name of science and education. That's pretty cool.

This post originally appeared at The Ill-Prepared Housewife. My kids have since outgrown the elementary school science fair, but I know that others are still in the thick of it judging from this recent video the Holderness Family dropped: