No Sugar Added: The science of Styrofoam balls and hot glue sticks
Next to the words, “I want to get my pilot's license,” few things uttered by a 12-year-old can strike fear into the heart of a parent quite like the phrase, “I need to go to the arts and crafts supply store for my science project.”
If you live in the northeast, you head to a place like A.C. Moore. Or Michael's. Seemingly benign chain stores dedicated to the sale of “crafty” stuff that many people believe they need; thereby assisting them in the “crafting” of items that seldom serve to give either “art” or “craft” a good name.
At first, everyone is all smiles. You go through the shiny glass doors and are propelled into a world of happiness and sunshine. Opulent displays of fluorescent faux flowers, lush plastic greenery and candy-making paraphernalia. Then you reach the aisles that are the apparent Holy Grail of all science project disciples, where shelves overfloweth with Styrofoam balls, plastic beads, pom-poms, pipe cleaners, glittering paints and a wide assortment of other items that are obvious future candidates for the big transfer station in the sky.
Then, just as you are lulled into complacency, things turn ugly.
In my experience, any trip to the arts and crafts store for science project supplies ultimately results in one or more of the following:
• A crabby child.
• A crabby parent.
• A fistfight between said parent and said child.
• A parent biting their tongue, thereby preventing the use of certain words not generally sanctioned by the child’s teachers.
These thoughts occupy my mind at the moment because it’s spring, and to the chagrin of many a parent, time also for the dreaded sixth-grade “atom model” project.
The first time one assists a child in their completion of this task, it’s not so bad. By your third child, however, one’s tolerance level is running a bit low. How many ways can there be to build an atom? And don’t they already have enough of these testaments to a parent’s patience dangling from America’s middle school classroom ceilings?
Granted, they are astonishingly precise scientific replicas, but at times, it seems the main point of the project is to avoid the cost of a professional interior decorator.
And so I found myself once again in the wonderful world of thick 'n' tacky glue, and empty wooden plaques awaiting decoupage disaster. After much debate over the correct size of Styrofoam ball required to recreate the nucleus of an atom, (who knew Styrofoam balls, comically packaged in pairs, could cost $5.99?), we moved on to the sewing aisle. This resulted in the acquisition of $4.99 worth of pins, and a parental threat to create a voodoo doll of every science teacher who has ever crossed my path.
After much sighing, interspersed with moments of brilliance, we were finally ready to pay for our goods. As I swiped my debit card through the familiar machine, I kept my eyes firmly focused on the display of baseball-ornamented Pez dispensers. Anything to avoid glancing up at the number on the register screen.
In the grand scheme of things, $28.96 is not a large sum of money, and at any standard grocery store, would only yield enough food to sustain a growing teenage boy for approximately 13 hours.
But $28.96 to build an atom model? Please. That could have gone toward something much more important. Like a nice bottle of wine. To lower my blood pressure.
Last night, I asked my eighth-grader, Harold, if he remembered what his sixth-grade “manganese model” had looked like. But for his recollection that it was now at the bottom of a dumpster somewhere, he remembered nothing of his project. All I remembered was that it had run more than $30 in craft store supplies.
After having managed and financed the various science projects of my three wonderful children over the course of the past decade, the idea that a consortium of middle schools secretly owns the local A.C. Moore is no longer just some kooky conspiracy theory.
Someone’s getting a cut of the profit on these pom-poms and hot glue sticks.
And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that it’s not me.