My Attitude About My Daughter's Science Fair Sucked, And Now She's Going To The State Finals

by Meredith Ethington
Originally Published: 
A girl wearing protective goggles in a gray shirt and plastic gloves preparing her science fair proj...
Tatyana Vyc / Shutterstock

Some of the things mothers’ nightmares are made of often include stomach bug outbreaks, head lice invasions, and the first time your child says, “I hate you.” But I’d like to add another one to the list: the first time your child says to you, “The science fair is coming up, and it’s required.”

I’ve been able to avoid the science fair until this point because it wasn’t required. But my daughter is in fifth grade, and when she broke the news to me a couple of months ago, I literally turned to my husband and said, “This is all you.”

Just the thought of poster boards, messy chemical reactions, and writing a hypothesis made my skin crawl. I’m a right-brained person. I read and write, and love art and music. I don’t do numbers, and I hate science. I literally shut down.

In high school, I barely passed chemistry. I remember just not getting it. The periodic table looked as intelligible to me as hieroglyphics. It’s not that I didn’t try. I tried. I really did. But it just didn’t stick. I scraped by, thank goodness, and was able to confidently say, “never, ever, again,” to chemistry. Luckily, it wasn’t required for a degree in psychology.

Thank goodness I married a man who loves writing abstracts and working with numbers. We’re total opposites, and it really is perfect for these troubling times like when the science fair is an actual requirement for passing the fifth grade.

When I handed over the reins, I didn’t really think of it again until my husband groaned to me that our child had picked something really complex. Of course she did. My daughter loves math, science, and reading. She’d prefer to read Harry Potter all day, but I’m thrilled at how much genuine interest she has in science and math too. She was excited to participate, despite my anguish.

We bought $40 worth of supplies on Amazon, and I still had no clue what she was doing. It turns out, her whole project was about cooking for chemists because, apparently my daughter, unlike her mother, loves chemistry. It makes sense to her, fascinates her.

I stayed out of it. Why do we still have the science fair? was my train of thought.

After many nights of science-y talk between my daughter and husband, it was time to do something I could help with: the poster. I grabbed my scrapbooking supplies and helped her organize everything onto her board, and felt proud that we were finally done with this ordeal.

That is until she took second place in her school and was the only girl in the top-three kids who moved on to the district level. Then she placed there and is now moving on to the state level. And while I am a very proud parent, I couldn’t help but think, Oh, no, it’s the science fair that never ends!

But I realized something about my bad attitude along the way. It was just that — sucky. Here my daughter was doing something she loved and was participating in a STEM event and winning, like really kicking butt here. She was the only girl from her school going on this far, and everyone was thrilled for her.

I realized the problem wasn’t the science fair. The problem was me.

I talk a big talk to my kids that they can do anything they want, but here I was not actually supporting that. Sure, maybe it’s not me who can help because I don’t know an abstract from a hypothesis, but I can be more supportive when she wants to do something like this. Because raising a girl who is told she can be anything, and actually believes it, is my No. 1 goal.

The Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey states, “Although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25% of STEM jobs. This has been the case throughout the past decade, even as college-educated women have increased their share of the overall workforce.”

A year ago, she told me that her dream job was to own her own bakery and have a reading studio in the back, and I totally got onboard with that idea because, of course, baked goods and reading are my jam. But I am a changed woman now. My enthusiasm needs to be just as strong for the stuff I don’t care too much for (like science and math) so that she’ll believe anything really is possible and pursue her individual passions.

According to CNNMoney, a new survey commissioned by Microsoft shows that girls’ interest in STEM subjects peaks around 11 years old, and that by 15, they have lost interest. In addition, CNN reported that “the survey also found that girls’ interest in humanities subjects drops around the same age but then rebounds sharply. Interest in STEM subjects does not recover. ‘This means that governments, teachers and parents only have four or five years to nurture girls’ passion before they turn their backs on these areas, potentially for good,’ Microsoft said.”

I realize now that even though my daughter doesn’t have to go on to a career in STEM, it would be amazing if she did. And it’s up to me to help foster a love for STEM.

With awareness of the issues regarding STEM and girls growing thanks to movies like Hidden Figures and with after-school programs that aim to connect girls with STEM programs, we’re making progress. But now I realize that the shift in attitude needs to happen with me too. Even if I can no longer help with fifth-grade math problems, I can still show my excitement and support so she knows it’s possible to do anything she wants and that she will be amazing at whatever that is. And I have the science fair to thank for that.

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