The disorganized parents’ guide to a successful Science Fair project

Any resemblance with real people and/or situations is because I based this on myself and other 4,564,223,545 similar parents I know.

Step 1- Exactly 29 hours before said Science Fair enter in absolute panic because OMIGOSH WE FORGOT THE SCIENCE FAIR.

Step 2- Mop around and nag your spouse about what a terrible parent you are. Act all insulted when he doesn’t try to prove you wrong.

Step 3- Go about with your day because oh well, it’s too late to do anything about it now.

Step 4- Listen to your heart break into a million pieces when the child realizes she won’t be attending the Science fair, and she tries her best not to cry.

Step 5- Kick your ass in gear and resolve to do something. After all, this is life, full of spontaneity and impromptu developments! With its share of forgetful and somewhat irresponsible parents. Improvise, darnit!

And here, from me to you… scientific salvation: Bow.

I can’t remember exactly how I came across this link, but ever since I did I added it to the information in my ‘Resources’ tab up there by my header. I knew it would help me some day; the day has come.

The experiment we chose is DNA Extraction, a surprisingly simple process but of high-caliber learning possibilities. The best part was that after a quick trip to the store to get some alcohol our material list was complete! No-fuss big-name materials here. Educational bliss.

Their explanation is very easy to follow (and they get extra points for the adorable ‘helper’ in their pics); this is our version.

Time-line of the dysfunctional family’s Science fair project:

8 pm– After dad has arrived from work (because he had to go into the office today, of all days), and dinner is served, finally trek out to buy rubbing alcohol.

8:20 pm– Arrive back home and put the alcohol in the freezer. Begin the visual presentation, probably the most extensive part of the project.

Draw, color, cut, print and paste.

I had the lingering feeling that last year I interfered too much in how the presentation turned out, so this year I backed off and let Anna do her thing.

The most I helped with was spelling out words when she asked me to, and with some of the gluing. We couldn’t find the solid glue anywhere (of course) and had to rely on the white, liquid stuff, which can dampen and tear paper easily.

As the presentation was being worked on we reviewed facts about DNA. Here are some sites from which I read aloud to Anna while she worked:
100 Facts about DNA
Science News for Kids
All About Forensic Science

These will all have a permanent home in my Resources tab for sure!

10:00 pm– Time to start the actual experiment.

Here are the steps as we followed them-

You will need:
Carrots or any other vegetable
1/2 cup of water
1/4 cup of dish-washing soap
1 Tbs of salt
one coffee filter
a funnel or mesh filter

Chop the carrots (or any other thing you’re planning on using)


Put them in the blender with the 1/2 cup of water and 1 Tbs of salt.


Blend just enough for the biggest chunks to break down. Don’t overdo it.

Once blended, add the 1/4 cup of dish-washing detergent.


You can swirl the mixture or let it be. We didn’t move it around much and it worked just fine. We learned that the combination of salt and soap breaks the cell walls open (which are, in part, made of fat) thus releasing the DNA into the water you blended with the mixture.

Next, place the coffee filter on your funnel or mesh filter, and filter your mixture into a clear glass container.


Once this is done you can discard the coffee filter and what’s in it.

Tilt your glass container to a side, and veeeeery slowly pour in some (cold!) alcohol. It has to be done slowly because you don’t want the carrot juice and the alcohol to combine; we need the alcohol to sit on a layer on top of the juice.  The amount of alcohol to pour will be equal or more to the amount of juice you have. We did more.

At this point (according to the experiment explanation) after a few seconds you should be able to see a film of DNA forming.

We saw nothing.

And I panicked.

10:17 pm Call it a night, hopeful that in the morning things will work out.


And what do you know? All our experiment needed was precisely that, time to set. As in, our experiment was wanting for us to back off, respect its individuality and give it space, goshdarnit! (Who knew experiments could be so adolescent)

So, after a night of beauty sleep here it is in all its splendor. I present to you… carrot DNA:


Ok so what if Stephen suggested it looks like something someone spat out. I still think it’s awesome.

Oh, if only we had a powerful and educational whilst super fun microscope to view it under, our complete edification on the subject would be fulfilled!  *cough* Stephen *cough*

And now you see how the actual experiment took 17 minutes to complete, plus one hour and forty minutes for creating the visual presentation, you can have an entire Science fair-worthy project finished in one hour and 57 minutes!

The cost for us was of about 4 dls for the bottle of alcohol, all the other things we had at home. Time-effective and cost-effective, yeah!

Now you get to exhale, relax and promise yourself that never again are you going to wait until the last minute to do these things! Yeah, right.


Exploring possibilities

DNA is quite fascinating. These are some other things we discussed while working on the project:

How the origins of humans can be traced back thanks to genetics (I highly recommend watching ‘The amazing human journey’. This is what first introduced Anna into the uses of DNA)

The use of DNA in forensic science and crime-solving.

Will DNA someday help bring back extinct species?

The ‘psychological’ effect of genetics: Are genes the excuse we give for the unhealthy behaviors we have refused to change?



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Black History month: Lecture with Dr. Austin Clarke

Anna has been toying with the idea of becoming a writer, interest that was sparked after learning about Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s life.

Surfing through our city’s official website I came across information for a lecture the city was hosting with acclaimed Canadian writer Dr. Austin Clarke, in honor of February being Black history month.

In all honesty I had never heard of Dr. Clarke before, which was already reason enough on its own to attend his lecture. This, added to Anna’s new career interest motivated us to do the trek downtown in the freezing cold.

I don’t have any expectations of if Anna will or will not in fact become a writer. My frame of mind is more along the lines of, if this is what she’s expressing interest in at this moment, I’m here to support it. She was excited at the prospect of being face-to-face with someone who had received so much recognition and had made a life out of writing. In a sense, I guess it made the dream seem achievable.

Read about Dr. Clarke’s multiple awards and novels

Dr. Clarke talked about his birth country, Barbados, and its denial towards its own history of slavery.

With what seemed like nostalgia in his eyes he talked about a time when beauty was in music, in the proud women’s afros, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still present to remind black people how beautiful they are. “The music, nowadays, has a different purpose. And you know what kind of music I’m talking about”.

He shared with us memories of a time when black people couldn’t get their hair cut by barbers in Toronto. Most of the time they couldn’t get jobs either, which prompted many of them to continue their studies, to go to grad school. This gave birth to a wave of West Indies’ lawyers, which for him was, in the midst of all bad racism can be, a good thing.

He talked about his first job as a journalist; how he wrote up his first article– a full ten pages of it! His editor and friend to this day looked at him and told him “Spend your day reading the Globe and Mail and learn how to write a journalist story”. That article was changed from ten pages to one and a half paragraphs.

Dr. Clarke mentioned how he likes to sit by his second-storey window and look out into a park, which at night is dimly lit and has very bad reputation mainly due to “the Toronto Star’s prejudice”. He has observed many times how women quicken their step when crossing this park; how they hold their cellphones up and pretend to be talking to someone. He thinks this is just one of many differences between men and women in Toronto, the feeling of being exposed and frail. These women who cross this park inspired him to write about them in a passage he read to us, written from the woman’s perspective.

The exercise of observing is what has made him the accomplished writer he is today. “As a writer I spend my time looking at people, just like I look at you now. In two years I may write a novel and you’ll read about yourself there”, and after a quick chuckle he added “in a good way!”

Close to the end of his lecture and in a message of advice to future writers he added “Go into the mind, if not into the mouth, of the subject and describe what it is they see”. Sound advice.

I found it to be a very edifying morning; I’m very glad we were there.

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Furniture for Polly Pocket

Polly Pocket was no longer happy without a decent hang-out space in her house. She and her friends were tired of being left thrown around the dollhouse in uncomfortable positions.

Dolls. So demanding.

A trip to the dollar store solved the issue. We found a kit for building wooden doll furniture.

You simply snap out the pieces and fit them together. The instructions, instead of written, show you in drawings which piece fits where, which is pretty awesome because it forces the child to be very observant of details.

Also, we discovered that the wooden pieces have a “right” side: one of the sides is more porous, and the other one is smoother. The pieces fit better when the smoother side is facing outwards (which makes perfect sense, but still, it was fun for Anna to touch each piece and really observe them to find the smoother side).

The pieces are tiny and frail, and most of them fit very tightly. If this isn’t an effective way of developing fine motor skills I don’t know what is.

Once you’re done building you can decide to reinforce the structures with a tiny (tiny!!) drop of Gorilla glue. I repeat, TINY drop! That thing expands like an angry puffer fish, so if you use too much by the time it dries you will find bubbles set outside the lines of what you were gluing.

Or you can jump directly to what was Anna’s favorite part– the decorating.

I swear she put up with the building just so she could get to the painting. Whatever works, right?

And here they are, finished:

Polly Pocket I hope you like prime colors.

After letting it dry, allow for the new owners to test it out.

And you’re done! Now supervise that the dolls don’t start hosting all sorts of crazy parties trying to show off their new flat.

We really enjoyed working on these, and I can see them being something not exclusive of girls. For example, these would be fantastic for a boy to build as a gift for a sister or friend. Or maybe their boy dolls action figures need a lounge in their man-cave. Hey, superheroes need a coffee table to put their feet on, too.



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Our journey into homeschooling

It’s been two years now since we began homeschooling. Two years ago we moved to Canada, to our new life. This new life did not include the option of sending our child to school unless we wanted to shell out $8,000 Cdn per school year. We definitely didn’t have $8,000 laying around and so homeschool it was.

Anna had gone to regular school since the age of two (extremely young, and a pointless practice as I see it now. But that’s fuel for another post.) and she kept attending until half of second grade, when we moved away.

If I told you that everything was blissful beauty and intellectual harmony in this house when homeschooling began I’d be plain lying. I was resentful and angry. I was stuck with my kid 24/7. Stuck. There’s no other way of explaining it; that’s exactly how I felt. Trapped. With no alternative but to suck it up and try not to go crazy in the process.

This lasted for maybe six months. I dreaded every morning; the arguing, the fighting, the frustration. I cried more than once. I felt like a complete failure and I feared I was doing my child a great disservice.

My annoyance grew each day because Anna was completely dependent on having me sitting right beside her to do absolutely anything. Even when her comprehension of English had increased dramatically, she still wanted me there. This was a huge indicator for me. Why was my kid so vehement on needing reassurance at every step? Why does she constantly ask for confirmation of the correctness of her answers? Is she afraid of getting things wrong? And if so, is it because of how I may react? Is she convinced that mistakes are a bad thing?

This is the part where I come clean and tell you that I can in no way claim to have been a role model of a parent during this time. I see now that I was too caught up in my own feeling of impending doom to be an effective source of motivation for my child. We can’t give what we don’t have, correct? I was stressed and overwhelmed: so many facts to drill into my kid’s head, so little time. I lost my patience on countless occasions. I think it’s difficult to be patient when there’s no inspiration behind our actions. I was at a complete lack of inspiration spiraling down a vortex of dissatisfaction, dragging my daughter down with me.

Until one day I found out about a group that would become my lifeline in this journey. I met several homeschooling moms from my area and my sense of relief was vast. To see others who were on the same boat as I was, and many of them had been doing it for many years and, wait… they didn’t look like they wanted to pull their hair out and strangle their kids? They actually looked pleased and relaxed. They loved what they were doing. They really enjoyed their children. What a revelation that was.

I asked so many questions! I wanted to know everything! What curriculum to use? Which books to read? What activities to do? And they were so helpful and kind that I came back for more and true friendships emerged, for both Anna and me. Coincidentally, the advice that kept repeating itself over and over from the lips of so many different women seemed to be the same: Let your child lead the way. She will learn everything she needs to know when she’s ready.

It sounded almost like a vision in the middle of a desert, too good to be true; surely just a hippie idealistic illusion. It couldn’t possibly be so simple.

But it was.

After the advice sunk in Anna and I spent many days doing nothing, and oh how good that felt. Now I know that this process has a name, and it isn’t called de-schooling for nothing. It is a much needed moment for parent and child to forget all the notions of what school “should be”. It allows you to decompress and relax, reshaping and shaking the very core of all beliefs you ever thought “necessary” for learning to occur.

We cuddled on the couch and read. We watched movies. She goofed around on my computer. She played with her dolls and out with her friends.

In this time I re-discovered what a cool kid I have, and she showed me how incredibly smart she naturally is. I didn’t have to push and shove. It was all there.

And when she was ready she learned to multiply, quickly followed by the confidence to do her work on her own. Then, several months ago, she demanded to be taught division. Yes, she demanded it. In the past few days her eyes have sparkled with excitement as she talked about researching, writing and delivering a speech. And today, as I type this, she writes and illustrates her very own storybook. Because she wants to. Because this is about her.

And I get it now.

Let your child lead the way.

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University of York- Science Outreach program

New year, new experiences.

We kicked off our 2011 portion of the school year with a great initiative organized by my friend Amy along with students of the University of York.

Currently there is much interest in making Science accessible to children everywhere, and according to what I’ve heard from other homeschooling moms with older children, particularly to girls. There is a desire to break with the notion that Science is a man thing. Surely it is presently a man-dominated topic, but this is bound to change as we progressively seek equal encouragement for girls as we do for boys.

After all, why not?

And to set example, we received a visit from a group of wonderful girls, students of the University of York and volunteers in the Science Outreach program.

These girls drove for over an hour in very slippery, wintery conditions to see us, with no other benefit to them other than knowing that they shared their love of science with a group of excited children.

Since our homeschool group is very heterogeneous and we have a few of every age, the kids were split into three groups depending on their grade.

The first table consisted of the youngest, up to third grade. As an experiment they made their own Oobleck, a silly putty concoction– a very messy one, which obviously made it an instant hit.

Another tabled homed the oldest kids, those twelve years old and above. They did some seriously cool CSI and forensic science stuff, even learning how to lift fingerprints.

Anna’s table learned about acids and bases and the differences between one and other.

They listened as the volunteer explained the pH scale, their distinctive tastes (sour for acids and bitter for bases), and how mixing acids and bases will cancel each other out then becoming a neutral.

She did several demonstrations in test tubes that allowed the children to see the colors of the substance change. Also, she made a lot of emphasis on safety, reminding the kids to always ask for an adult to help and to never put substances in their mouth if they’re not certain it is harmless.

Then it was time for them to experiment. The challenge: to create a secret message with invisible ink.

First, they received a piece of paper, a brush, and a choice between lemon juice and water/baking soda mix.

The reason they were given a choice was because lemon juice is an acid, and baking soda with water is a base; this would allow them to reveal their message in different colors depending on what they chose.

They soaked the brush in the solution (Anna went for lemon juice) and used it for writing or drawing on their paper, allowing it time to dry. The volunteer had a hair dryer to make the process faster.

When the ‘invisible ink’ was completely dry, they sprayed their sheet of paper with red cabbage juice. The cabbage juice reacted with the lemon juice because of its acidity, changing color into bright pink words.

For a more detailed explanation of the experiment and why cabbage juice is used, click here.

Here is Anna’s secret message:

For those of you who have trouble understanding ancient hieroglyphics, that reads Hi Phoebe, I miss you!

Phoebe is Anna’s good friend that she doesn’t get to see very often.

Girly bear hugs ensued.


Thanks to Amy for organizing this, to York University for encouraging its students initiatives, and most of all to the great group of volunteers that are tireless at making science fun. You rock!

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Welcome to the humble new abode of this family’s homeschool experience!

I chose to move all my homeschooling posts here because it was getting too crowded over at Help me or I’ll kick you, and I really want to keep our school activities neat, tidy and easily accessible. How much fun will it be in twenty years from now to look back and reminisce on all the things we did for learning?

In the name of making new memories, welcome.

Now grab a broom because we’re still tidying.

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Day of the Dead– Toronto style!

On Saturday we took the bus down to Toronto for a Day of the Dead festival that took place in the Harbourfront Centre, which is an awesome place with tons of super cool stuff going on.

The day began with an early wake-up, which still wasn’t enough for Anna and I to be at the bus terminal at the time we had agreed to meet our friends. Carol said she was thisclose to standing in front of the bus to stop it from leaving without us. Those are good friends, y’all.

Taking the GO bus is a beautiful, albeit sloooow, experience. It’s the ‘panoramic’ route, and you get to see the countryside and charming little towns.

And Toronto is… what can I say. It’s Toronto: busy, beautiful, fast, and semi-maniac. For a city girl like me, it feels just like home.

We arrived to the Harbourfront Centre at around 11 am, and the place was starting to buzz with excitement. A Catrina elegantly welcomed guests on the information desk:

We walked into the adjacent room and… be still, my heart. A Mexican marketplace!

They had exhibitions of very elaborate altares:

All things Mexican were sold here, from jewelry and clothes, to art and pan de muerto (bread of the dead, traditional sweet bread for Day of the Dead).

And talavera. I had been coveting talavera for over a year now:

Talavera is considered a form of art, and if you read the information on Wikipedia about it, you will see why.  I caved in and bought one plate and two bowls for our family’s Mexican dinners. I may have lied to the husband as to how much I paid for them *cough*.

The hallways beside the main marketplace room were also used as part of the event. One particular artist set up an altar for Carlos Monsivais, Mexican journalist, writer and activist. This altar had astonishing details and a lot of hard work invested in it, including two full-size calacas (skeletons).

Can you imagine how much time it took to make the skeleton, to line every detail, to dress it and set it up? Whew!

Remember how in a previous post I mentioned that skulls and skeletons are usually dressed in common clothes and are shown participating in everyday life activities? Here you have two skeletons working the fields, accompanied by their burro– also all bones, of course!

We walked into the craft room where tables and material were set up for the children. There was an empty altar ready to be dressed up. The kids had to make ofrendas (offerings) to decorate the altar.

Some horsing around ensued, but eventually their masks were finished.

View of the altar the kids were meant to decorate:

A Mexican flag, an image of Virgin Mary (patron of Mexico), Frida Kahlo and a traditional hand-made doll (I had one of this growing up *sniff*)

So many things were going on during this event. There was Mexican food to be had, shows to watch, movies to see:

We walked into one of the conference rooms just in time to see the mariachi playing. It’s funny how I never gave this music a second thought while I was in Mexico, but now, far away, it all takes new meaning and the memories flow with every note played. I choked back tears more than once.

The mariachi was joined by a folkloric dance group made up as skulls:

Later in the day we went back for a second show: Las Calaveras de Posada (The Skulls of Posada). Jose Guadalupe Posada is the Mexican artist credited with creating the now well-known image of La Catrina.

This show was a representation of a funeral procession, the moment of death (when Death herself comes to take us from the living world), and what happens after.

The funeral procession was silent and impressive.

The characters marched solemnly down the aisle, followed closely by La Catrina, lady death.

An electrician, a cyclist, a mariachi, Frida Kahlo, a punk and many others joined the stage. All was silent as one by one, each character showed the way that death had caught up with them: the cyclist was riding his bike and was hit by a car. The electrician grabbed the wrong wire and was electrocuted. One by one they were followed by Lady Death, who in her hands took their life.

At this point, I noticed a non-Mexican family sitting in front of me with their two young children (6-ish years old). The kids were completely absorbed in what was going on, eyes wide as plates as each person met their tragic fate. The parents exchanged uncomfortable looks as the punk acted out getting in a fight and being stabbed to death. I smiled and thought to myself “they don’t get it”.

It’s difficult to explain the rituals and symbolism of Day of the Dead to someone who wasn’t brought up within the culture. I think Mexican writer and literature Nobel-prize winner Octavio Paz said it better: “For someone from New York, Paris or London, death is the word that is never pronounced, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, however, frequents her, mocks her, caresses her, sleeps with her, celebrates her, is one of his favorite toys and his most permanent love”. (translation mine)

After everyone on stage was dead, a few moments of heavy silence followed. And then…

Lights! Lively music! The dead arise! Beers for everyone! Dance, dance, dance! Many Arriba! Dale! EEEEAAAA!

Full on celebration!

Because public drunkness is, after all, 100% Mexican. You’re doing it right.

More quizzical looks from the non-Mexican family in front of me. Yes, peeps; this is death to a Mexican. The juxtaposition of the sorrow for those left behind, with the belief of el muerto al pozo, y el vivo al gozo (the dead to the hole, and the live to enjoy!)

Famous quotes, verses, rhymes and songs alluding death flew from the lips of those onstage, all in Spanish. Some people (who I guess didn’t speak the language) decided to leave the room. But I was curious to know the perception of those who had stayed and had not understood a word of what was said.When the show was over, I asked Kendra (Carol’s 22 year old daughter), what she thought all of it meant. “Well, I understood that the people were dying, and after that, it was all like just one big party. At moments it was as if they would stop and wonder if they could really be doing all this, to realize that yeah, they could!” Girl, you got it right.

With that amazing display, our day was over. The bus ride home seemed to last forever, mainly because of how tired I was. When we had to change buses at a station in the middle of nowhere, I quickly pulled out my camera to capture this on the driver’s dashboard, welcoming commuters:

May we all allow some bus driver wisdom into our lives. Peace.

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