Around Town: Internet a great place to find science project ideas

On Feb. 6, at 6:30 p.m., Palm Crest Elementary School will host a science fair in its multi-purpose room. The purpose of a science project is “to find out something that you didn’t know before.”

When the notice went out parents all over La Cañada exclaimed, “Hello, Internet? Do you have any science fair projects for my kid?”

La Cañada is known for parent involvement in elementary school projects. In the 1980s, Palm Crest parents focused on the time-consuming California Mission Project. One family passed their father-built model down the generations through three siblings. Each child received an “A,” to the chagrin of their classmates.

I know these facts as gospel because my kids griped about the unfairness of other parents doing their kid's homework.

“Why can’t you build my mission?” they would complain.

“Do it yourself,” we would reply.

Now that the tide has shifted to science, here are some resources for the discerning Palm Crest Panther parent.

There are hundreds of websites with thousands of elementary school science projects. You’ll find so much data that it would take weeks to pick a project. As a public service, here are five project ideas.

1. Tesla Coil: Caltech professor Richard Feynman was a genius. If you want your child to be a genius like Feynman, then consider building your own Tesla coil. Google “coilers” online and the rest will be history.

(An anonymous but charming La Cañada physicist told me the following joke last week. “A neutron walked into Taylor’s and asked, “How much is a beer?” The bartender replied, “For you, no charge.”)

2. Rejected Kevlar project: Without our help, our son submitted a prospectus for a seventh-grade science project to test the effectiveness of different brands of Kevlar, a bullet-proof material that is used in bullet-proof vests. For some unknown reason, the science teacher rejected the project because it involved test -firing bullets into five brands of Kevlar, with careful measurements and recording of the effectiveness of each substance in a $7.95 laboratory notebook.

Our son never recovered from the rejection. It haunted him for years. His roommates at the Naval Academy, mostly from Texas, continuously agreed with him that it was an awesome science project, unfairly rejected, which could have supplemented the science curriculum and prepared the entire student body for the SAT.

3. Feeding junk food to mice (and vegan variations): One of our daughter’s classmates won a prize for this project. She spent a year breeding little mice. Six months before the project, she split the mice into two groups. She did not tell the mice which group they were in. One group was fed potato chips, pizza and sodas. The other was fed healthy stuff like mouse kibble and vitamins.

Guess what happened after six months? One group was balding and sickly. The other was extremely athletic. Adults loved the moral dimensions of the project, which won awards for presentation as well as method. The kids liked the little mice, which scurried about in their glass enclosures. The kids also enjoyed sampling the potato chips, sugary cereals and junk food.

It is unclear whether the SPCA guidelines would permit this project today. You can always try the boring vegan alternative — the two squares of turf, one gets fertilizer and one doesn’t, or the two plots of peas, one gets sunlight, one doesn’t, and so forth.

4. Flammability testing: After his first project was rejected, our son got the following approved by the same science teacher. No one knows how or why. We suspected, however, that she was unhappy with this novel project. The purpose was to test four brands of baby pajamas for duration and scope of their alleged inflammability, after being laundered 0, 5 and 10 times.

The equipment list was awesome. It included a video camera, a stop watch, dozens of sleepers from J.C. Penney, Carters, Sears and Absorba, and something called a Collectible Bic lighter which cost $50, but was essential to the project.

5. Seismic monitors, weather stations and onions: Many science fair projects involve building an earthquake monitor or weather stations, recording data for a few weeks, then presenting the material in a novel and informative way. Onions are equally interesting. One compares the effect of frozen versus room-temperature onions. Which ones make you cry? Do they carry a charge? Can you hit them with Kevlar? There’s a number of mathematics science fair projects. Consider this: “Why did the chicken cross the Möbius strip? To get to the same side.”

Welcome to science fair season in La Cañada.


ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @anitabrenner.

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