by Whit Gibbons

September 13, 2015

Next to parental guidance, most credit for today's environmental awareness among young people goes to schoolteachers. For much of the year, they spend almost as many waking hours with children as their parents do. One of their teaching tools is science fairs.

The following two projects are ones that can be successfully completed and be educational for the student. I'm sure because when I have suggested these projects before, students have used one or the other in a science fair. I won't guarantee that either will win a science fair in the computer technology age, but both relate to international environmental issues: the fossil fuel crisis and biodiversity.

The fossil 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.

The premise is that 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 supposition is that the odds favor getting into the store faster by taking the first spot that is available and walking a few extra feet, instead of searching for that prime spot.

The procedure and questions: Stand in front of a mall or big grocery store during a busy time as cars come in. Use a stopwatch to time how long it takes drivers to park and how long it takes them to get to the front door. Do drivers who take a spot immediately, even though it is near the back, on average actually get to the front door faster, perhaps even while the searchers are still driving around? If it turns out to be true that those selecting the first spots reach the front door sooner, they not only save time but use less gas and get more exercise. In a relatively short time, 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.

The biodiversity hypothesis: Plants and animals will live on any available space if given enough time, even on a vertical wall.

The premise for this one is based on a book called "Ecology of Walls" written by Arnold Darlington 34 years ago. In his book he declares 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.

The procedure and questions: Sample a variety of walls and record what lives on them. What variables affect the composition of species and the success of different kinds of organisms? Are walls with horizontal sections that create shelf space more likely to collect dirt and debris where seeds can root? Does compass direction matter for some species? For example, does moss grow mostly on the shady side of a wall? Do the wall's material and composition have a major influence on what lives on a particular wall? Does the age of the wall influence the vegetative character? What lives on the wall? Algae, moss and lichens? Do vines and even small plants grow on crumbling walls? How about animals like lizards, treefrogs, spiders, millipedes and a variety of insects?

Either project could be completed in two weeks and could be carried out in hot weather or cold. Imagine the data a student could accumulate to make the point that driving around looking for parking places is wasteful or to demonstrate that walls are important to the biodiversity of an area.

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