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May 29, 2019

My Ill-Fated Career in STEM

I spend a lot of time grateful for being a parent in the age of the internet, online bullying and Insta-perverts notwithstanding, because it means I’ve not only got at my fingertips birthday party ideas, assurances in the event of weird health symptoms, and recipes whose ingredients are whatever random vegetables happen to be shrivelling in my fridge, but that I’ll never be as lost as my mother must have been on that afternoon in 1988 when I came home from school and informed her that I needed to have a science project to take to school the following day.

And so began my ill-fated career in STEM, a career that was managed by my mom, from whom I might have received my lack of proclivity in the sciences, but who also taught me everything I know about being a parent who shows up for her kid. She must have called around our subdivision and found a book of home science experiments, and somehow that night she managed to help me put together some experiment involving a bottle and a balloon that inflates. I don’t remember what the science was. I don’t suppose I ever knew. I was oblivious to a lot in 1988, not just to science, but also to life-management in general, which was underlined when I took my project to school the next day, and learned I’d gotten mixed up and the science fair was not until the following week. Which meant that I was just ahead of the game, I thought, feeling cocky, until the science fair finally arrived, and one kid had built a solar powered barbecue, and here it became clear—with my pop bottle and balloon—that perhaps this was to be a field in which I wasn’t destined to shine.

We resolved to do better the following year, or at least my mom did, coming up with an ingenious solution—and indeed, this would be the zenith of my scientific career: she found someone else to do my project altogether. It wasn’t cheating, exactly, because the whole thing was transparent. Somehow, without internet—if I can remind you—my mom managed to track down contact information for Canadian Astronaut Marc Garneau, to whom we sent a list of interview questions and a cassette tape on which he could record the answers, which he did, sending it back with photographs, stickers, and other cool things that made an excellent display. At the Science Fair, I played his answers on a tape player, and won a prize in my category, and felt pretty good about what I’d accomplished here, although I secretly wanted to build a model of the solar system like everyone else was doing, but my mom thought that was cliched.

Things would never be that good again. The following year, I began suffering from basilar artery migraines, which really only happened a handful of times, but the diagnosis meant that I could pretend to collapse on the playground and spend time in the nurses’s room being the centre of attention, and then my mom would come and pick me up and I’d go home and watch TV. The doctor I was seeing suggested I could do a project on brains and migraines, and my mom and I jumped right on board, because it meant we didn’t have to think of a project ourselves. I did some research, and must have learned something, although I remember none of it, and wrote up my project to be displayed on the three panelled wooden boards we now had explicitly for science fair purposes, held together with hinges. (Where did my mom get this board? How did she enact such miracles? Perhaps I should have done a science project on questions such as this…).

But there was a problem: I had nothing to display. Everyone else would have experiments, and the proverbial solar system models, and the kids whose dads were engineers all would have built water filtration systems in aquariums. But then my mom had an idea: what if we got a brain? An actual brain. And because she was my mom, she somehow managed to get a brain. (Where do you go to get a brain? How does she do it? Especially when you don’t have the option of online.) A cow’s brain, from a farmer, which came frozen, and I brought to school in a pie plate. But in all the trouble of acquiring a brain, my mom hadn’t thought about another scientific principle, and obviously neither had I, because I don’t think I ever thought about science at all: what happens to frozen things kept at temperatures above zero?

And so that was the year my science project was basically a melting cow’s brain, whose sight caused more than one child to vomit as she perused the science fair, and so that day my table had a layer of sawdust on the floor before it, courtesy of the janitor. It goes without saying that this was another year I didn’t win a prize at all.

We would do better then. Maybe I needed to be a more active part of the process, and do an actual experiment, so the next year I resolved that I would do some inquiry and come up with a vital scientific question that needed answering, and then I had one. Eureka. What was it? My question was: Do Plants Need Air. Which, to be fair, was a burning question that science has been trying to answer for centuries, and because my mom’s approach to parenting was to make me feel like everything I did or made or thought was excellent (and/or maybe she really did think that the jury was still out on plants and air?), she was all in.

In order for my experiment to be a success, my mom managed to procure plastic water coolers, have the bottoms sawed off them, and then we could use caulking to seal the water coolers to piece of plywood. Some of the plants would grow as usual outside the sealed coolers, which the others would grow inside the coolers which (as we failed to note or perhaps my mom was just too busy sawing plastic to consider it) were themselves filled with air. Maybe we had failed to think this through. And how would we water the plants that were in the sealed coolers? A burning question that (although we didn’t admit it to ourselves) transformed the scope of my project into one addressing the even less burning question of plants and air to this one: Do Plants Need Water? (Spoiler: yes they do.) I don’t remember precisely what the conclusions of my project were, but I know that I did not win a prize. (Also, because I had a mom that made me feel like everything I did or made or thought was excellent, I was surprised and disappointed by this.)

As a parent, this might have been the point where I packed the whole thing in, or had my child bake a cake and bring it in and declare that this was chemistry. But my mom would not give in so easily, was not that into baking, and between us we supposed we’d learned about from science fair disasters to do an experiment that was actually good. But in order to be good, preparation was necessary, so we started six months in advance—I would do a project on fast food packaging and biodegradation. (This was back when McDonalds burgers still came in Styrofoam boxes.) I remember driving around town with my mom and going to various fast good outlets to ask for wrappers, boxes and other kinds of packaging to use, and then I buried these packages in containers of soil that we kept behind our furnace with labels on the container so that we’d know which establishment had supplied each one. Sounds good, right? An actual experiment, with social relevance, and possibly could launch my career as an environmentalist? My science project was all set before the school year had even started. We had triumphed. We were awesome. We would not be defeated by the science fair, for once in our lives.

Except that turned out to be the year that the science fair was cancelled, and so the wrappers remained in our basement and rotted (or didn’t), and after that I decided to focus on the arts.

6 thoughts on “My Ill-Fated Career in STEM”

  1. Kate says:

    I am still mystified that I chose to do a science project on vampires in sixth grade and no adult stopped me. Really enjoyed an excuse to read many books about vampires, didn’t create a display until the night before, obviously no prizes were won.

  2. Kate says:

    Also, your mom is amazing.

    1. Joan Frances Clare says:

      Yes Kerry your mom is amazing. Oh the memories…
      xo

  3. Amy K. says:

    Thanks, Kerry for a gut-busting good read at 1am! You’re actually a STAR!!! And that’s sciencee!🧫🦠🧬🔬💕

  4. Sandra Hare says:

    I came to the conclusion that science projects are really parent projects. Our favourite was making homemade dog biscuits and giving them to the neighbourhood dogs with the questionnaire attached. Of course no prize was won,but I continue to make the homemade dog biscuits myself.Well written Kerry

    1. Kerry says:

      It’s true!! It sounds like you were very good at this though. The dog biscuit project is genius!

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