Science Project

I’m helping my son with his science project. It is a classic: building a model of an atom. I don’t recall exactly which element we’re modeling, but we have a bunch of Styrofoam balls, poster board, and moxy. What we need is a plan.

My son is not big on projects. It is not the way he learns, and he hates the idea of them. For the most part I agree with him, but it’s something that has to get done.

My son is big on talking, watching television, and arguing. He especially likes arguing about what’s on television, especially when he can use the DVR to prove a point through the miracle of pause and slow-motion. These things don’t help get a project done.

When I was in sixth grade, I went through much the same thing, but my project was the orbit of the moon around the earth. It’s slightly elliptical, so I was stumped on how to draw an accurate ellipse. My father rescued me, but he went to a reference book on mathematics to find the formula, and then built a tool to draw it. I used a variation of that same tool to help my son with his project.

The trick is this: to draw a nice circle when you don’t have a plate or a sauce pan lid that is the right size, stick a thumb tack in the middle of your poster board and tie some thread to that thumb tack. Tie a pencil around the other end at the desired radius (actually, I used scotch tape to secure the thread to the pencil). Swing that tethered pencil around the thumbtack, and watch the circle come together.

Projects like this take days and hours to complete. You’d think we were building an addition on our home. Materials get scattered in every room; tempers flare at the slightest provocation; every one suffers.

I understand the teacher’s motivation, and it has definitely driven home a few points about atoms that we might not otherwise have remembered. I can still picture my project from sixth grade: it was a poster board spray painted black to evoke the night sky. The moon’s orbit was plotted with silver paint that had been purchased for a model airplane. The moon and the earth were both tin foil crumpled into a ball and glued in place. I don’t recall the particulars of the orbit, but I do remember being in the backyard with my father as he showed me how to spray paint, and then helped sketch the orbit.

I hope my own son recalls this project some day, and I hope it brings him solace and gratitude. There is also melancholy and a yearning for things past, but there is nothing to help those feelings. The good must be cherished with the bad, just as joy is given with pain.