It’s that time of year. No, you can’t hide behind the couch, and you can’t pretend you didn’t see that form come home in the backpack, either. More substantive than any diorama. Able to ruin multiple weekends in a single bound. It’s a written report, it’s a visual aid. It’s… (cue ominous music)… the Science Fair Project.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like science. I’m very interested in science. And I think there is value in kids learning the basics of scientific method from an early age and doing experiments, etc. For one of my first science fair projects when I was a kid, I built a solar-powered radio. This was a valuable and educational experience in which I learned that almost nothing works the way it’s supposed to. During the assembly process, I learned how to use a soldering iron. This in itself comes in handy every time I want to fix the pipes at home! Which happens, you know, never. Then I made a tri-fold display (oh how I wish I had invented the tri-fold display board!) describing how solar power worked to make the radio play. The only problem was, the solar power did not work to make the radio play. Well, in fact, the radio did play, but only if we were in the attic, where it would broadcast one fuzzy AM station. How exactly does a solar-powered machine work in a room with absolutely no light? This in itself might have been a good focus for my project. Unfortunately, I couldn’t answer the question. I still have no idea. When I brought the project to school, the radio didn’t even play static. But this is a valuable lesson in the scientific process! You fail multiple times, you learn from your mistakes, and you improve your chances of success with each subsequent trial. Notice I said “improve your chances.” I didn’t say “succeed.” In that way (and perhaps only in that way), being a scientist is a lot like being a writer.

The other memorable science fair project I created was on human evolution. I don’t remember what my hypothesis was, but I researched the physical differences and brain sizes at each stage on the way from Lucy to modern man, and as part of my display, I made a sculpture of the head of each one. We set up our projects one day in the gym. The science fair was to occur the next day. Apparently, there were some closet creationists at my school, because sometime that evening, vandals with baseball bats broke into the gym and smashed all of the projects, including mine. I’m still trying to figure out which stage the vandals were at on the evolutionary timeline.

To my parents’ credit, they never took over a project I was working on; it was, for better or worse, my own work. This is not always the case today. In fact, parent involvement in school projects can be so intrusive that I’ve heard my kids’ teachers issue this specific directive: Don’t even show this assignment to your parents!

What measure of self-worth is a parent getting from making sure their kid’s project looks presentable enough for the Westinghouse science competition? Is this a misplaced attempt to succeed where an adult once failed as a student? Is it discomfort with the possibility that someone else’s project might be better—or even just look better—than your kid’s? And why do you care about that? If science is in part about learning from failure, don’t we have to let our kids fail without our help sometimes?

I try not to intervene in my kids’ projects. This really is for the best, since I’ve always been bad at even the most basic level of school project torture, the diorama. When I had to make a dinosaur diorama, I was at least able to figure out how to get the pterodactyls to “fly” from the ceiling of the shoebox using pipe cleaners inelegantly stabbed through their spinal columns, but there was no way that a popsicle stick was going to make my T. Rex stand up. I am convinced that these kinds of projects are assigned to young children simply to provide an early lesson in frustration. I’m sure it didn’t teach me anything new about dinosaurs.

My favorite science fair project that my kids have done so far involved testing household objects for bacteria. My son swabbed things that were natural suspects, like the toilet seat, door knobs, TV remote, as well as more innocuous items like cereal boxes and the computer monitor. For a few days, he watched as bacteria grow in Petrie dishes in vast quantities and startling colors, and he recorded his observations. In case you’re wondering where the greatest concentration of bacteria was in the house, I will only say this: Wash your lettuce thoroughly.

This year, it’s my younger son’s turn. It took him less than a minute to come up with his project proposal: To measure the destructive capability of a catapult vs. a battering ram. What amazes me is the consistency of children’s interests over time. When the older boy was 6, he said he wanted to be an architect, and the younger one, then 3, said he wanted to be a wrecking ball operator. How neatly their goals mesh!

So, while my son is finding suitable materials he can batter and destroy in the name of science, I will be in the attic fiddling with this old radio. If anyone has the urge to offer assistance, please refrain. I’m supposed to do it all by myself.

For more from Paula Whyman, see www.paulawhyman.com and her online parody newspaper www.bethesdaworldnews.com.