DOWNERS GROVE, Illinois. The eighth-grade science fair at Nellie Fox Junior High School is always a competitive event in this high-achieving suburb, notes Principal Wallace Forstmann proudly, since “Many of our brightest kids will go on to become Ph. D.’s in the hard sciences. Other, less fortunate students actually make money.”
Nellie Fox Junior High School: Plenty of good parking spaces still available for the science fair.
Last year’s runner-up, Adam Waxman, thinks he has a chance to win it all this year with a depiction of how, if people like his mom and dad would only stop driving SUVs, dinosaurs might make a comeback and roam the earth again. “My favorite is the triceratops,” he says as he points out a model of the three-horned herbivore climbing a miniature volcano. “I’d like to see him trample the lunch ladies the next time they serve fishsticks.”
But Adam may be cruelly disappointed tonight because his school, in an effort to promote “green” thinking among its budding scientists, has added a new assessment category for judges; the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by a project, with higher scores going to those that are carbon negative or neutral.
Armand Wilson, a professor of climatology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, takes notes on a clipboard as he strolls through the fair, nodding with approval when he arrives at Adam’s exhibit.
“This is most impressive–albeit horribly naive,” Wilson says with a friendly grin. “Let’s see–Plaster of Paris volcano. That means fossil fuels were used to mine gypsum, then used to heat it to 150 degrees centigrade,” he says. “Not good.” Adam’s face registers concern, but Wilson moves to reassure him. “It’s just ten points off–but you should have just used mud.”
“We need to shut this exhibit down right now!”
Wilson next examines the paint used to give the volcano its grey-brown color, and a bright green hue to the surrounding “jungle.” “Hmm,” he says. “Latex paint–acrylic polymer emulsion,” he murmurs to himself as he checks a box on the evaluation sheet. “You’ve got vinyl and polyvinyl acetates there, young man. You should have just mushed up some berries or grass, the way subsistence cultures do.”
Adam is close to tears as Wilson picks up the plastic triceratops to examine it. “Polyvinyl chloride,” he sniffs. “Do you know how hard this stuff is to recycle?” he asks with a withering tone as he totals up the score–19 out of a possible 50.
“Do you know how hard I–I mean he–worked on that stupid volcano?”
Adam’s mother, Cheryl, can stand it no longer, and rises from her folding chair to confront the scientist. “How dare you give my son such a low score for a project that I–I mean he–worked so hard on!” she screams at Wilson, who is taken aback by the force of the woman’s anger. “You’ve ruined his dream!”
“Ma’am,” Wilson begins evenly, “not every child is cut out to be a top-notch, environmentally-sensitive scientist. For those who aren’t, there are plenty of jobs mixing paint in hardware stores.”