There is nothing like a middle-school science project to test a parent's ability to remain detached and allow his child to learn on his own.
Recently, my eighth-grade son Alyosha returned from school with mixed emotions. "I have a science project," he announced. "I have to build a submarine."
"A submarine?" I echoed. "Why?"
"I don't know."
Over the course of the next several days, I managed to excavate a few more nuggets of information. His objective, as far as I could discern, was to build a small model that would dive and surface in a bucket of water, ostensibly to demonstrate the principles of density and volume. "Do you have a list of materials?" I asked. Alyosha shrugged. "No," he managed. "It's entirely up to us."
As a teacher myself, I sometimes shudder when I hear of such instruction, or absence of it. On the one hand, I see the lack of direction as an incentive for the student to be creative; on the other, I find myself wondering if the teacher is just trying to burn up some time.
As he didn't have any idea how to proceed, I gave my son a few tips on making bubbles with baking soda and cream of tartar. Then I presented him with my much-coveted shoebox in which I hoard general items of junk that have no assigned place in the house: corks, broken watches, magnifying glasses, Canadian quarters, empty film canisters, and the like.
All of this brought back memories of my own eighth-grade science project. We had to build a paper airplane that would either glide for five seconds or do two loops before landing.
I worked apace in my bedroom for a solid week, folding enough paper to account for the harvesting of a small forest. But when my turn came, my invention flopped after three airborne seconds. Mrs. Sokolowski scowled at me, as if I had let down the entire world. "You'll never be a scientist," she concluded with grim finality in an age when Sputnik had impelled all of us to think of the laboratory in our collective futures.
Over the next several days I watched from the periphery - and held my tongue - as my son turned the kitchen upside down. The place was strewn with paper clips, plastic vials, lead weights, and empty boxes of baking soda. Water was everywhere. Finally, late one night, I bit my lip as my son hovered over the bucket of water, his face tight with frustration. I went over and put my hand on his shoulder. "How goes the experiment?" I asked.
Still staring forlornly into the bucket, Alyosha shook his head. "It doesn't work," he lamented. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
"How are the other kids in your class making out?"
"Well, Josh's dad...."
That's all I needed to hear. Like a ship drawn into a whirlpool, I surrendered to my son's unvoiced cry for help, rolled up my sleeves and commanded, "Hand me the baking soda."
We designed a submarine from a little plastic vial with ballast, gas vents, and a separate bubble chamber. We only had to get the thing to dive and surface once. But it worked only capriciously, as if it had a temperamental little mind of its own. Now it was my turn to stare into the bucket and shake my head. During the next three days my own frustration level grew to the point where I found myself repeatedly turning to my son and telling him, "It's not you, Alyosha. I'm also stumped. There's got to be a way to do this."
I was up to my elbows in the project now, fully convinced that almost every other dad in the class was also burning the midnight oil. The only one sleeping soundly, apparently, was the teacher.
On the eve of the project's due date, just as I was about to concoct a lecture about learning from failure, an idea hit me like a bolt from the blue. "Alyosha!" I cried out. "Give me the sub."
Sensing that something potentially wonderful was about to happen, my son complied with alacrity. "Here," I said. "Let's plug up these holes on the bottom."
After the modification was in place I handed the vessel to Alyosha. He loaded it, positioned the thing over the bucket and let her go. We watched with palpable apprehension as it glub-glubbed to the bottom. Five seconds passed, then 10, and then, inexorably, the thing began to ascend, in a slow and otherworldly fashion.
"She rises!" I bellowed.
Not only that, but after pausing at the surface for a few moments, she descended again. "Beautiful," said Alyosha. "It works!"
As he reached in to retrieve the little sub, I stayed his hand. "No. Look!" I announced as, before our eyes, she rose again. And sank. And rose and sank, slowly and deliberately. Not two or four, but 60 times within seven minutes, the span allotted in class for the experiment.
After our engineering coup, my son sat down and put the finishing touches on his schematic. Then we discussed the scientific principles involved. After he had learned his lesson well, my young submariner hightailed it off to bed, confident in the morrow's success.
In the calm of late evening, in the aftermath of our frantic experiment, I reflected on whether I had perhaps helped too much. I think this is a question every parent of school-age children asks from time to time. Should I offer direct assistance here, and if so, to what extent? It's a delicate dance, a sort of step-back interference. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do think Alyosha learned a great deal from our cooperative venture, and it is this knowledge, rather than the little submarine's record-setting performance, that gives me no end of satisfaction.
I think that Josh's dad would concur. And Mrs. Sokolowski, wherever she is, I'm sure would be proud of me.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society