Neil’s Science Project

For his school’s open house, Neil, like the other fifth graders, had to do a science project. It was pretty challenging. I don’t remember ever doing a science project, and just coming up with a project that a) wasn’t a known science project template, b) involved month-long study and observation, and c) could be carried into a classroom and set up on a desk was hard. In the end, Neil decided to see which liquid could dissolve shredded paper the quickest and most effectively: lemon juice, ammonia, or sugar water.

To our surprise (and disappointment) for about half the month, nothing seemed to happen at all, except that the paper got wetter and heavier. The ammonia seemed to dye the paper blue, but little else. But then the lemon juice did seem to do something and it was yukky: as the paper started to dissolve, a mold formed on top.

We’re lucky enough to live near a chemistry professor, so we took the jars over and asked him if he knew what was going on. He was delighted to tell us that it was acid-catalyzed hydrolysis. Or, in more detail, the lemon juice acid was breaking up the cellulose polymers, inspiring the resulting monomers to bind to the water, and form glucose, which the mold was eating. And the gunk at the bottom was wood pulp. I think that’s what he said. Neil ate it all up, and was delighted to put it on his board and in the report. Not surprisingly, his teacher marked him down a point for being too complicated in his presentation. And that’s a good lesson too: because if the people you’re talking to can’t understand your presentation, you need to present it in a way they can. In any case, I was happy because Neil had learned something new, and had had a challenge in presenting it in a way he’d never done before.

I thought Neil’s science project was great, but I was also very impressed by the projects the other children in his class did. One boy (with help from his father) had created a battery testing board and tested the battery life of AAA, AA, C, and D batteries. Other students had tested the efficacy of dyes on different types of fabrics; the efficacy of different laundry detergents on mustard stains (Tide worked best); which brand of battery lasted longer in a flashlight (Energizer). Hey, simply as a consumer, I was compelled by the information. A number of students explored the effects of different liquids on plant growth. Most caffeinated drinks, low-fat milk, and salt water will all kill or at least stunt a normal plant; but they seem to like coffee ok. Mostly, a lot of plants died in the name of science, and not always in the ways the scientists expected them to.

Neil worked hard on his science project, and I always like an educational project that requires some effort. But I did not expect how intriguing and compelling the other students’ projects turned out to be. And I think most of them were better than I’ve seen at the few competitive science project fairs I’ve run accross.

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