One of my less-fortunate experiences in third grade involved my less-than-stellar science experiment. Despite my best attempts, I couldn't get any mold to grow on the culture I had setting in my locker for what seemed like weeks.
Maybe if I had tried using one of my gym socks to grow mold, I would've had better results. However, I'm pretty sure my teacher would've been worried that it would've created way too much mold along with a subsequent odor that could've qualified as a weapon of mass destruction, but I digress.
At the same time, I remember having to develop different projects for school science fairs. Back then, it seemed that science at that level was a lot simpler and a lot less stressful.
We always had at least one student that created a paper maché volcano that spewed "lava" composed of vinegar and baking soda. A few more took lessons out of their science books and transferred that data to large sheets of poster board, complete with quickly hand drawn pictures and hastily written notes.
Today, it's a vastly different story. The projects that students are producing today are way above anything I could've imagined during my failed attempts so many years ago.
The level of detail produced in the reports created by elementary and middle school students in our community is nothing short of astonishing. Having looked at many of these projects over in the past few years, it's obvious that these youngsters have to do a lot more research and generate more tangible results.
At Stephensen Elementary School at Mountain Home Air Force Base about three years ago, for example, I remember a report produced by a fourth grader in which she tested out various model rockets to see which nose cones produced the least amount of drag and allowed these miniature missiles to fly the highest. While her father helped sculpt the balsa wood to the proper shape, she was the one who had to put everything together, collect all the data and analyze the results.
Granted, this wasn't rocket science but... wait a second... yes it really was rocket science. Never mind.
A similar type of science took center stage at Hacker Middle School last week as hundreds of students displayed a myriad of reports during a science fair. It wasn't the sheer number of projects on display that caught me off guard but the types of research these students conducted.
Thanks to the advances of the Internet in recent years, students can look up what seems like an infinite number of projects or test whether what they read on social media is actually true or pure nonsense.
Students in one classroom focused their attention solely on different types of water conservation projects. With their imaginations running wild, parents were treated to projects ranging from building basic water filters to showing people how they could use their home to collect rain water.
But instead of simply copying and pasting what they read online, these youngsters took it a few steps further by building working products or scale models to support their findings. You could see the pride in their eyes when someone would see what they built and look in amazement when their experiment worked better than most would've expected.
Then there were those who tried to recreate what they saw in a "viral video." The one that really stuck in my mind involved a glass bottle, a raw egg, a piece of paper and a match.
The student used those very simple materials to show that someone could create a vacuum in the bottle by burning the paper to literally suck the egg through the narrow lip of the bottle while leaving the egg unscathed.
All of this was caught on camera, which she then edited and had set up as a video clip that she played repeatedly for those who stopped by her display.
Then there was a young man who really caught my attention. He caught the imagination of pretty much every student that walked by with his invention -- a fully functional computer he built completely from scratch.
When I was his age, I'm pretty sure I was still playing with building blocks and toy trains. To see someone build something so complex in such a short amount of time -- just one hour -- was truly inspiring.
I suspect that this sixth grader and others like him will do bigger and even greater things by the time they reach high school. It's possible that what they will create when they go off to college is something that doesn't even exist today.
And yes, there were a fair share of paper maché volcanoes in that gymnasium for us old timers, who remember all the fun we had making them erupt before having to clean up the subsequent mess.
Students today have the entire world at their fingertips, which is perhaps why their teachers have greater expectations on what to expect. It's not enough for a student to research a topic, write a paper and turn it in for a grade.
Today, they often have to create a formal presentation, complete with full-color images, charts and graphs. That doesn't include the experiments they have to build and conduct.
At the same time, advances in technology and our understanding of the universe continue to grow at a vastly alarming rate. Case in point: Computer technology changes so fast that everything a computer science student learns in their freshman year is already obsolete by the time they graduate.
And that's just a start. Just six months ago, people were convinced that Pluto was a lifeless, boring world. Today, that tiny world is helping humanity rewrite its entire understanding of how the solar system was created.
Here's something else to consider. Only 70 years ago, mankind was convinced that the speed of sound was a barrier that no one could possibly break. Today, we're still trying to determine whether the speed of light is the actual barrier we will never be able to surpass.
I can only imagine what today's students will unlock 10 or 20 years from now. It should make their science projects a whole lot more amazing.
-- Brian S. Orban