Chocachatti Elementary School students and their parents looked expectantly at Ruth Markham and Matt Goldrick, who recently gave the children a peek into the future — a head start on future science fairs. Markham is the school's science lab teacher. Goldrick is the math lab teacher. They co-direct the school's science fair, which is mandatory for third- through fifth-graders. Kindergarteners, first-graders and second-graders are encouraged to participate, but it's voluntary.
So the younger kids were the evening's targets.
"It's good practice for them," Markham said. "The sooner you start, the more they understand about it, and it's so important because once you do a science fair project, you are thinking."
The teachers had several fifth-graders, experienced science fair participants, assisting them as they walked the children and their parents through a simple science experiment.
Markham and Goldrick told students what constitutes a project. Goldrick pointed out to students that they need to actually design an experiment and not just create a display. Said Markham, "It must be measurable."
They began with paper facsimile back boards and construction paper notebooks to illustrate how to document a project. The purpose, or question the experiment would answer, was written first — in this case: Which would roll the farthest from a ramp, a light metal ball or a heavy one?
Markham asked the children what they thought about that, or what their hypotheses were. Around the room, children suggested which ball would roll farther.
"They're thinking like scientists," Markham said. "I love it!"
The teachers discussed variables and what should be kept the same to make the experiment as accurate as possible. Again, the children contributed. When rolling the balls, the experimenter should use the same ramp, the same floor, same-size balls, the same ramp height and the same environment.
Then the independent variable was identified — the weight of the balls. They were 20-gram versus 5-gram balls.
Markham told the children that scientists don't do experiments one time.
"Scientists do it hundreds of times," she said.
They would do theirs three times.
On their paper boards, the children listed the procedure they would follow and the materials they would need.
"The more detail you put in there, the better," Goldbrick said.
Markham mentioned the need for safety, and again asked the children what they thought. Watch out for splinters (the ramp was made of wood); don't throw the balls; keep little kids out of the way. And this from first-grader Jonah Janse van Rensburg, 6: "Make sure you're out of the way when you roll the ball," he said.
Then balls began to roll, six in all, three heavy and three light. Data was taken, and conclusions were determined. The light ball rolled an average of 417 centimeters, while the heavy ball only averaged 230.
The thing about experiments is there is no wrong hypothesis, the students were told. Results either support or do not support it. Either way, something is learned.
The young students, out on a school night, had their reasons for making that extra effort.
"'Cause I want to be in the science fair," Jonah said, "because I just want to show off another project."
He had done one in kindergarten.
"I had a heavy car and a light car, and I watched which one went farthest," he said.
Second-grader Ethan Mohr, 8, said he was there "because I like doing science fair projects. It's just fun being here."
Ethan plans to do a project involving Mentos mints exploding in different kinds of sodas.
First-grader Kendall Bunch, 7, said she also was happy to be at the session.
"Because we thought when we were in the next grade it would be easier to understand a science project," she said.