A HEAD START ON THE SCIENCE FAIR THIS YEAR
by Whit Gibbons
August 24, 2008
of waiting until the week before science fair projects are due later this
year to try and come up with a project, consider a couple of suggestions
as school starts. The following two are ones I know can be successfully
completed and will be educational for the student. I'm not sure either
has a chance of winning a science fair in the computer technology age,
but either would be interesting and both relate to international environmental
issues: the fossil fuel crisis and biodiversity.
fuel hypothesis: Shoppers driving into a mall would save both time and
energy by selecting the closest readily available parking slot when they
enter the parking lot rather than driving around looking or waiting for
one closer to the building.
We can all think of examples where both gas and time are wasted by people
driving around waiting for a place near the store of their choice, while
passing up open slots a few spaces farther away. The odds favor your getting
into the store faster if you take a spot that you know is available and
walk a few extra feet, instead of looking for that prime spot.
and expectations: Stand in front of a mall during a busy time, watch a
car come in, and use a stopwatch to time how long it takes a driver to
park. Record your statistics for a couple of hours--where people park;
how long it takes them to get to the front door. The hypothesis is that
drivers who take a spot immediately, even though it is near the back,
will on average get to the front door faster, sometimes while the searchers
are still driving around. If this turns out to be true, they not only
save more time but use less gas and get more exercise. By going to a mall
for a few days, a student can get several dozen data points, support or
refute a hypothesis, and produce a science fair project that tells people
something useful. Embellish the project by calculating how much extra
gas the searchers use.
hypothesis: Plants and animals will live on any available space if given
enough time, even on a vertical wall.
Arnold Darlington, in his book Ecology of Walls (1981, Heinemann Educational
Books, London) claims that walls comprise more than 10 percent of the
area habitable by plants and animals in a city. Walls are all around us,
providing habitats for many species. Included would be garden walls, the
sides of houses and sheds, even the sides of a big oak tree, which is
just a natural wall.
and expectations: Sample a variety of walls and record what lives on them.
Keep a record of the variables that could affect the composition of species
and the success of different kinds of organisms. Walls with horizontal
sections have shelf space and are more likely to collect dirt and debris
where seeds can root. Compass direction could matter for some species.
Moss is more likely to grow on the north side of a wall. The material,
porosity, and composition of the wall and the history of human alteration
are major influences on what might live on a particular wall. One of the
most influential factors determining the vegetative character of walls
lichens are usually the first pioneers to become established. Vines rooted
at the base may climb up, and shrubs and trees may even grow from crumbling
walls. Animals also make their homes on walls. Lizards and treefrogs,
spiders and millipedes, and a variety of insects can be found on walls.
The exercise will be revealing about how much life is all around us if
you just take a careful look.
I am suggesting these projects now, students (and their parents) will
have ample time to procrastinate until two weeks before they are due and
still get them completed. But imagine the data set a student who starts
now could accumulate to make the point that driving around looking for
parking places is wasteful or that walls are important to the biodiversity
of an area.
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