Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Essential life lessons from a ten year old scientist

Credit: Wikicommons
Father and son brought together through science.

The generation gap closes when father and son come together on a science project.

My science project
Last night, my son and I completed ground breaking scientific research on his fourth grade project.

You remember those science projects, right? For mine, I caught harmless bugs, killed them, and pinned them to a piece of cardboard, with their appropriate scientific names.

My son was overwhelmed by the assignment sheet that was six pages long. I wanted to start immediately because the project was due the next morning. At first, I tried to coerce my son to construct an old school project where we would make a car that ran on a 9 volt battery, from scratch. That was the kind of project I wished I had done instead of bugs.

I drug him reluctantly to RadioShack and purchased all the parts we would need: a switch, wire, a motor, binding straps, and a rubber gasket to connect the tiny motor to the (homemade) axles. We would use a pinewood derby kit for the wooden body.

We made it to the point of attaching the axles (my most ingenious idea) to the wooden car, and I, feeling proud for finishing this part, looked up into my son's eyes. He wasn't with me, and the project had become mine. It was my car and they were my ingenious axles.

Although I felt passionate about the project and the learning that could have taken place, the whole idea was mine and it was old school. My ambition to make something from bits and pieces of old technology did not appeal to my son at all.

"Okay, what do you want to do on this project I asked?" a little frustration in my voice.

I could tell he was reluctant to divulge the truth because I was so committed to my project. With his shy voice and lack of eye contact, he said, "I want to run my remote control car across different places to see how fast it goes."

No, I am not a saint, and it pissed me off that he wanted to abandon the project. His idea was stupid and easy. We were so far into building the car, and the process would have been finished shortly. I could see so much he could learn about electricity, friction, circuits, axles, and motors.

I confess that I pouted for a while. I mumbled something like "Why didn't you say that in the first place?" as if I had given him a chance.

I gathered the pieces, put them in a Walmart bag, and we stepped away from the project for a bit. I could see hurt in my boy's eyes.

My son's science project
With a little time and distance, I recognized that this was his project, and he needed to be committed to the work. But, more importantly, I discovered that his idea was more fun, fit the assignment better, and was high tech.

I looked at the bag with the pieces and parts of an outdated and unwanted project, feeling old. I became aware of the distance between my son and me, in years and in technology.

Sometimes we adhere to dumb ideas out of habit. We cling to our past as if it is a gift we can give to our children. We stubbornly see "back to basics" as beneficial for the child, when he or she is headed toward a new and better horizons.

I think every generation hits a critical point when they realize a part of the world has passed by and culture has advanced beyond what they grew up with. This technological crisis is painful because they see the distance between them and the new generation.

They realize part of the knowledge they thought was so exciting and important when growing up is now outdated. The world has moved on to littler and better things, and the new generation has novel and ingenious ideas to push beyond the old.

This is the human story. As we have evolved, our culture has changed with us for thousands of years. Each generation learns from the past and accelerates into the future. Culture evolves and moves in new directions, and occasionally important items are knocked off by natural selection. But, more often, the old is built upon by the new generation, the old becoming a building block for grander accomplishments.

I discovered last night that we should facilitate advancement in young people, and let the spark of another fire light their eyes. Learning works best when embraced by the learner, and neither I nor my son were embracing this project.

But, we can't passively let children go off alone in their new direction. We are a part of them, and they a part of us. My error was in thinking that the project and learning was either mine or my son's. Learning doesn't work that way.

The teacher learns from the student and the generation gap collapses. We all become students, learners, and teachers. Science is not a selfish, isolated enterprise, but a collaborative one. We are mutual learners, caught up in a discovery process together. Generation gaps are a myth, and the reality is that the present is a synthesis of the old and new.

My son and I started over, with him in the position of control: the scientist. He broke out his amazing remote control car. He measured out a length of rope 16' 9" as his runway. He appointed me as the timer, with my iPhone, and he was in the driver's seat. I wrote down the times on the three runs we performed on grass, asphalt, and pavement.

My son processed the data. He had hypothesized that the car would run fastest on smooth pavement, and as he averaged the times, we found he was correct. We were both surprised to find that the car was five times slower in the grass than on the pavement.

When we finished the poster and the report at about midnight, we were both exhausted and enlightened. He became a true scientist, with a mentor to walk with him through new paths. He became teacher and student.

We hugged tightly, and I could see in his eyes that he was proud of what we had accomplished. I saw new confidence in him, the power to create, to test, to teach, and to be taught. He smiled having completed his own project. I felt close to him.

And, I learned a lot that I will try to incorporate into my knowledge base:

  • Our ideas are not necessarily the best ideas.
  • The gap between generations is an illusion, which only becomes a reality if we allow it.
  • Attempting new things and experimenting with new technology is fun and rewarding.
  • Children can teach adults, if they will listen.
  • The evolution of culture is positive, and we are a part of the process.
  • We learn and discover best together, rather than alone.
  • Science is fun.
  • Children are brilliant.
  • Adults have a lot of knowledge to share and so do children.
  • Adults can catch the spark of youth, changing and growing in our old age.
  • Adults can also excite children about new things.
  • Love, teamwork, and kindness are key ingredients in learning.
  • One should not be afraid to try new things and technologies.

I kissed my boy goodnight, and he was already half asleep. As I flipped off the light and left the room, he said, in a groggy voice, "thanks Dad."

About the Writer

I am a former English professor, turned writer, but my secret passions include web design, social media, technology, Spanish, neuroscience, construction, landscaping, and bonsai on the side. I love to blog at, and I also write for BC Blog, Technorati, Blog Critics, and Social Media Today.
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