Science Fair

After only a month of planning, we held the school’s very first science fair today. It even almost had a chance of going according to plan. But then the day began and what was supposed to be a well-organized last day of school before final exams became a perpetual exercise in flexibility and “shifting on the fly.” Given the whole event was largely a last minute idea and had never been done before, we are calling the today’s cacophony a success.


Ms. McIntosh and I divided our tasks shortly after she proposed the idea four weeks ago. She focused on pairing the students with topics and helping them with research. I focused on structuring the day to accommodate about 40 presenters, 200 students, and special presentations from Jamaica’s Forestry Service and a professional nutritionist. I also had to end it all in time for a school Mass to close the school year and kick off final exams. According to Ms. McIntosh, I had the easy task because, “you have a scientific mind and can figure these things out.”


Right.

My first take at scheduling the day. The final spreadsheet would be much more elaborate.

I do not know if having a scientific mind makes a task any easier, but I took the pat on the back and set out to planning. I scheduled first period to commence as usual for students not presenting in the fair. Those with projects were to use the time to set up and make last minute changes. At the beginning of second period, students would begin a coordinated process of cycling though the auditorium and science lab to observe projects and ask questions. Half of them wee allocated to the first 90-minute block and the remainder continued with class as usual. The two halves of the school swapped at the next 90-minute block: those who toured the fair went back to classes and those in classes toured the fair. After lunch, Jamaica’s Forestry Service was slated to talk about the environment and deforestation, and a nutritionist was scheduled to come and talk about healthy eating habits. And all of it would magically end at 3:00 p.m. in time for the school Mass. Easy, right?


It took me a few days, but I put the schedule on a spreadsheet, color coded it, and shared it with Ms. McIntosh and the faculty. Easy. Beautiful. Logical. Methodical. Maybe Ms. McIntosh was right: I had the easy task. Then she handed me a shopping list of items some of the students needed. The local hardware store was handy for finding baking soda, Epsom salt, and boric acid. The local grocery story provided the vinegar and vodka. (Science isn’t all boring, after all.) More difficult to find were things like marshmallows and lavender oil, but I have cultivated a few resources during my time here and procured them. I also assisted many students with online research. In some cases, due to the lack of time, I found the information for them. I was hoping someone would choose the topic of wind power but, sadly, no one did. There is a wind farm on the mountain range next to us. Despite our proximity, we suffer power outages daily. I have been asking around to learn more about it and have quickly discovered it is a very complex issue. I thought it would be a great addition to the fair but got no takers. Were I not coordinating the event, I might have made a presentation of my own because, well, I am a geek.

Wigton Wind Farm. I was likely trespassing when I took this. It sits within sight of the school and despite a large power source in proximity, we expeience multiple power outages per day.

As of last night, everything was all set. I got a decent night of sleep feeling confident I did all I could in the time I had to help this event succeed. Then the sun rose this morning and the chaos began unfolding immediately.


Upon arriving at school early, Ms. McIntosh came to the house to inform us she had left her keys to the science lab at home. “No problem,” I said. “We’ll get the spare keys from the principal’s office.”

“There are no spare keys for the lab.” she replied.


“Come again?” I asked.


She explained sheepishly, “They replaced the lock a while back and never made an extra key.”


This news abruptly ended my breakfast and we jumped in a car and raced to her house. After a 40-minute round-trip wherein I applied all I have learned about driving here – seriously, driving in Jamaica can be like a video game come to life – we very hurriedly set up the projects. This is exactly why I used the first period as a buffer – something was bound to go wrong and I wanted the slack. Unfortunately, I had to play that card before the fair itself even started. Shortly thereafter, I received a word that the nutritionist, who was scheduled for the afternoon and knew this fact for a week, called to say she was only available in the morning and would therefore have to cancel. Frustrating, but losing that part of the afternoon gave me some slack again in case I needed it.


Things went a bit more smoothly once we were underway, but it was very far from perfect. However, I was continually flustered by an element for which I had not prepared and about which I could do very little: student apathy. Thinking back on my experiences with science fairs, they were things I had to do. I was only enthusiastic about them when I was in it for the chance to win rather than in it for the science. Cosmic justice being a cruel mistress, I could not force students to engage their classmates about their projects. I was doubly stuck when a student stood and walked out of presenting her hurricane project because, “[she] don’t feel like doing this anymore.”


Adding insult to injury was a lack of preparedness on the part of some of the other teachers. Despite my beautifully structured agenda for the day, which very clearly stated which classrooms were to be at which location and at what time, many classrooms were completely absent from the event. Not only were Ms. McIntosh and I left feeling utterly unsupported, it gave the students the idea that it was okay to blow It off too.


As I was determining a way to rectify that oversight, members from the Forest Service arrived quite unexpectedly and very early. It was 10:30 a.m., but they were scheduled to begin their presentation at 1:30 p.m. Had they ever returned my phone calls; they might have known that. However, they were ready to begin immediately because “it is a three hour drive back to Kingston and [they] did not want to get on the road too late.” I could not accommodate them immediately, but I did manage to find a slot for them, they would just have to wait a short while.

But I had little time to figure out how to remedy this new wrinkle. Remember the nutritionist? Despite having cancelled a few hours earlier, she showed up anyway, set up shop in the science lab, and occupied an entire 90-minute block I had reserved for project presentations in that room. So not only did a select number of participants not get to show off their hard work, there were only about 20 students who learned about healthy eating habits.


After lunch the Forestry Service finally gave its presentation followed by a tree planting exercise on the school grounds. I then arranged an ad-hoc window for students who were unable to present in the morning, and for students who missed some of the projects because their respective teachers forgot to bring them. By the time I had solved that puzzle I was clearly frustrated. Sensing this, Fr. Sam (who is the school’s principal) reassured me everything was going much better than I realized. “Look at it this way: it’s the best science fair we have ever had.”


“Fr. Sam,” I replied, “This is the only science fair you’ve ever had.”


With a wink he said, “So you see, I’m right again.”


And he was right. The day was a success, at least by the standards of a place where you are forced to make things up as you go, and with few resources to boot. Students had the chance to display their hard work and some admitted to having learned a thing or two about global warming, hurricanes, energy transfer, evaporation, and the five senses and the central nervous system. They also learned about deforestation and environmental degradation, and a select few now know about the dangers of eating too much junk food.


As I look back on today, I recall my experience with the community center and the Disability Arts Festival last spring. I had less time and significantly fewer resources this time around and still pulled it off. That makes three significant experiences in 18 months where I was responsible for pulling team members and resources together to accomplish a goal. And all three in some way contained an element of educating/persuading/informing a wider audience, which is consistent with that aptitude test I took a year ago. As the old saying goes: once is an occurrence, twice is a trend, three times is proof.


Lastly, perhaps today was not about having a well-organized and efficient science fair. Maybe today was about setting the stage for next year’s fair. I would offer that if we begin planning now, it might be enough time to plan a smoother science fair next year. Though I challenge next year’s fair to beat today’s coup de grace, delivered just before we assembled for Mass: adding Mentos to a bottle of soda pop.

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© 2020 by Mark Konold