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Science fair flashbacks a real drag

March 27, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

My ongoing war with public education heated up over the weekend, when I suffered a flesh wound at the hands of an old weapon that hadn't bitten me in nearly three decades.

Perhaps you have heard of something called a "science fair," which obviously began as a scam cooked up by the National Plywood Association and the posterboard division of Georgia Pacific as a way to boost sales.

Right off, I have a problem with the name: Science "fair." Fairs are supposed to be fun. By this false-advertising logic, the Spanish Inquisition would have been known as the Thumbscrew Fair, or the Vikings would have been known for their Pillage Fairs.

My second problem is timing. Science fairs heat up just about the time all the home stores are setting out their pansies. If there's no crying in baseball, there should be no learning in springtime. That ought to be a rule.

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But schools seem to be doing all they can to foster springtime learning, when boys ought to be outside building tree houses and girls ought to be outside criticizing the boys' home-improvement methods (to prepare them for future life).

Over the weekend there was something called a "Battle of the Books," in which the top public-school finisher was a team of Karen Keppel's fifth-graders from Boonsboro Elementary.

The public school day doesn't allow time to read the required books and study as many as 300 questions per book, so the children have to do it all on their own time, including after school and during recess. RECESS. Oh dear, I'm going to be faint.

Kids, let me introduce you to a little word Ms. Keppel probably doesn't want you to know about. It's spelled m-u-t-i-n-y. If that seems too harsh for the administration, just call it a Mutiny Fair. Sure, you and all the kids, home- and public-schooled, must have made your teachers and parents indescribably proud, but at what cost?

I probably wouldn't care about all this if it didn't somehow affect me, but of course, it does.

This weekend our contractor friends Mike and Mike were in to remodel the kitchen and the General Contractor in High Heels took time out from the "Shop and Awe" campaign she'd been waging on e-bay to do an amazing job of tiling the backsplash. Our friends Liz and Larry, who do this sort of thing for "fun," were over to help and me, well, I thought "grout" was some kind of foot disease, so I just stayed downstairs in the Batcave being as inconspicuous as possible.

So when young Alexa needed some science fair assistance, it stirred up some mighty painful memories, thank you very much Ms. Files.

The year was 1973 or so, and I had diverted from my usual apathetic nod toward science fairs (my standard fare was to layer five different-colored towels, push them together in the middle and draw up a poster that said "Folded Mountains") to invent a self-propelled electric car.

It had generators on the axles that would charge the car's batteries as it drove. Unfortunately, my Uncle Don, who chose a career on the dark side (science) pointed out that the drag would provide a drag that would need energy to overcome, thus negating the generation benefit.

It looked as if I would have to pick a new project. But this shows how ingenious a properly motivated child can be. I thought hard about all the time and hard work I had already put into the project, and decided there was no way I was going to let those 30 minutes go to waste.

So I modified the car-in-theory to where the generators would only engage when the brakes were applied. Since the driver wanted to slow down anyway, drag wouldn't be an issue, I reasoned.

I entered my project, got laughed at and never gave it another thought until I read recently in the Wall Street Journal that similar "technology" is being employed on new, experimental hybrid cars.

I'm not going to ask the inventor for any of the fame or fortune he's no doubt received from his patent. I'll settle for taking comfort in the knowledge that they guy probably would shoot himself if he knew that his stroke of genius was first cooked up by a 14-year-old kid.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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