My brother Gerret, aka G, was a one-person science fair. As a kid he had an Erector Set, a Gilbert Chemistry Set as well as a microscope and a telescope, also made by A.C. Gilbert. He loved turning purple liquids into clear, creating disappearing inks and, most especially, blowing up things. Every now and then we'd hear a muffled boom, the house would shake and a roll of smoke would waft out of the basement. His enthusiasm was egged on a bit by our German grandmother (Grossmama) who taught us how to make catapults, launch tinfoil rockets that used match heads for the propellant, and to catch and mount butterflies. G also was into photography and printed his own photographs in the basement when not blowing up the place.
His enthusiasm for such wizardry was on display 160 times over Thursday evening and the Keene Central School's Science Fair. I arrived at 6:30 p.m., the scheduled opening time but by then not only was the parking lot full, but cars were lined up and down Market Street.
"I thought that it was supposed to start at 6:30," I said to school superintendent Cynthia Ford-Johnston.
Naj Wikoff/Lake Placid News
The crowd watches the “egg drop” competition
"It has taken on a life of its own," she said.
Indeed it had. The hallways, gym, auditorium and classrooms were alive with screaming kids, people surging here and there, birds flapping their wings, the Irene foods being reenacted on a miniature scale, tennis balls bouncing off rafters, frazzled parents and attentive judges quizzing young scientists on just exactly what it was they were trying to pull off.
The tennis balls bouncing off the walls, ceiling and rafters of the gym were misguided missiles launched by Aiden Daniels' aptly titled trebuchet "The Bad Neighbor," a trajectory that was proving to be equally hazardous to the launcher and his attendants (aka parents) as the desired target (the far wall). The trebuchet, not to be confused with a catapult, was an ancient weapon of war and had it been devised by Aiden, his friendly fire would have ruined any chance of success. Aiden was clearly aware that his current level of accuracy would not bode well in the judging and was in the process of making all sorts of adjustments trying to solve the problem.
"It's not working," exclaimed Aiden. "It's firing up and backward."
"It was working beautifully," said his dad George Daniels to me and judge Bill Reed. "The first five shots were beautiful. Now it is shooting backward, we think that maybe the string is stretching."
"It works like a catapult, but it uses a counterweight to launch its projectile," said Aiden.
"As a judge what are you looking for?" I said to Bill.
"We look for enthusiasm, completeness, thoroughness, clarity of exposition and that there is an understanding of the underlying science. The students are judged within 3 age ranges, K-5th Grade, 6th 8th, and 9th 12th Grade, and are judged as individuals and as teams."
"We now think it is the way the tennis ball is sitting in the pouch," said George Daniels after a successful launch to the far wall. Aiden did all the research, cut out and assembled all the parts. He put in at least 25 hours on the project."
"Not counting all the time experimenting with the launches," said mom Laurie Daniels.
"Where did you get the idea to build one of these?" I said to Aiden.
"From a book on Leonardo DaVinci," said Aiden.
"I also look at their presentation skills because in life those skills are very important," said judge Bill Ferebe. "I think this is a fantastic event. I am very glad I was asked to judge. I just watched the soda bottle powered skateboard. That was very exciting, just don't stand behind it."
"So how does this work?" I asked bottle racketeers Thomas Palen and Joanna Kazmierczak who was duct-taping a 2 liter bottle of diet coke to a skateboard.
"The molecules of mint flavored Mentos and Diet Coke don't like each other," said Thomas. The Coke's CO2 molecules want to get away from the Mento molecules. The Mento has to be mint, other flavors don't work."
"Coke doesn't work. It has to be Diet Coke," said Joanna.
"They watched a bottle rocket on Youtube and decided to make one but they have found it hasn't been all that easy to reproduce," said mom Teresa Palen.
"We have spend a lot of time on this," said Thomas. "We have learned it is a physical reaction, not a chemical reaction. We have gone through a lot of Mentos."
"And a lot of bottles of Diet Coke," said Teresa Palen. "It has been fun. I have been on the school board for ten years. I have been to a lot of exciting events but I haven't seen anything like this. Every department is involved. It is exciting to see everybody so excited about science. These guys have learned it is hard work. You have to try and try again."
"Out of 25 launches only the last five have worked, and that's because of our new method of ramming the Mento into the Coke bottle," said Josh, which they proceed to demonstrate outside with dramatic spewing results.
"Did you know that fruit can conduct electricity?" said Vanessa Heald showing me a light bulb wired to a string of lemons.
"Ahh, no," I said looking at her table strewn with apples, limes, oranges and lemons.
"They can. The more sour the better. I thought size mattered but it doesn't," she said plugging in the lemon and watching the light glow.
It was like that, hallways, rooms and spaces filled with kids demonstrating all manner of experiments with great enthusiasm and sometimes slightly unpredictable and messy results, outcomes that in no way dampened their enthusiasm, rather inspired them to try to fix the problem; kids all aided and abetted by their parents.
The grand finale was an egg drop and 6th grade hovercraft challenge. For the egg drop kids had to construct a protective device around an egg that would keep the egg from breaking when dropped from successive heights, one story, one and a half, three story. The containers were made out of all manner of materials. For most, the giveaway was the sound of the carton hitting the ground. When the sound was a lot like an egg breaking the audience gave out a huge grown and a slightly heartbroken child would begin the task of opening the container to see if everyone's worst fears were realized, as in most cases they were. 4 succeed in protecting the eggs even when dropped from the ceiling of the gym, Kyle Shambo, Nora Poter, Justice Keenan and Noah Elrimani-Fine.
The sixth grade had been divided into two teams, Party Machine and We Are Sparta, each having constructed a hovercraft out of a leaf blower, box fans and some form of platform. The idea was to launch the craft and see which, with a bit of a shove, could get to the far side of the gym faster than the other team winning two out three attempts, each driven by a student wearing a crash helmet. Think of a hovering dragster, demolition derby sans brakes designed and driven by Mardi Gras revelers.
Maere Brammer drove her Sparta craft, launched with the aid of Noah Haverlick and Carter Gordon, to victory, a team that included Jacob Laundry, Antonio Finsterer, Brian DeWalt, Sydnet Joannette and Jonah Kazmierczak.
"We wanted to get kids excited about science. I think we accomplished that," said Jen Kazmierczak who along with Dave Craig thought up the Science Fair, which was organized with a great deal of cooperation by the school teachers, staff and administrators, parents and members of the community. Indeed, they did.