Science for the soul

For mothers all over the country, the arrival of Spring means participating in the annual scramble to come up with a project for the school science fair. For our family, this entails the five children still living at home simultaneously putting together experiments, papers, and trifold displays. I’m grateful that our kids like school projects, and find at least some aspect of science interesting. But coming up with a good science project is, I think, as much art as it is science.

There are a few perennial challenges with school science fair projects. First, the project has to be interesting. No one wants to spend over a month finding out why the sloth has three toes instead of four. (Sure, there’s always one kid in the class who actually thinks sloths are fascinating!) Second, if there is a partner involved, there has to be a clear understanding of who is responsible for what. To that end, a good relationship between the parents is indispensable. Third, parental involvement really must be kept at a minimum. Dad building a solar powered model car may get an “A,” but it doesn’t end up teaching junior very much. Frankly, I don’t know why any parent would get hands-on with a child’s science project. I already handed mine in -- over 30 years ago!

Most of all, however, a science fair project has to complete the assignment as it was assigned. If you need to perform an experiment, then you can’t even begin without a hypothesis. And, it has to be centered on something a student can actually do successfully. In other words, a project has to be limited and well bounded. It’s got to be something simple that you can test and measure, and not necessarily the stuff that dreams are made of. This last principle becomes rather difficult when kids are interested in nuclear reactors, or experiments that have to be done in zero gravity conditions. I’m good at finding just about everything I could ever need on the internet. But even I wouldn’t be able to find uranium 238 or a seat on the space shuttle online.

Our kids have, from time to time, struggled with choosing a project that could succeed. Last year, we had to face the fact that there just wasn’t a hypothesis you could test that had anything to do with whales. This year, we discovered that although lasers are really interesting, it isn’t very easy to come up with a middle school project that involves an experiment with lasers.

Framing the do-able is an art, and it applies to the spiritual life as much as it does to middle or high school. Many of us approach our faith as yet another assignment, or to-do. We don’t necessarily find it interesting. But those of us who do, may find ourselves trying to reach for the heights of holiness. Trust me, I know. When I read “The Interior Castle” I couldn’t keep from wondering what room I was in. When I read St. John of the Cross, I kept trying to figure out which rung of the ladder I was on. In all probability, I was two steps from the threshold and still on the ground!

The art of discipleship is to walk with God, not a step behind nor a step ahead. The soul’s great project isn’t dull. Neither is it beyond what we can do. Some of us are signed on to work with a partner. All of us must complete our portion of the assignment ourselves. Though the method is the same, our procedures may differ. But tested and tried, most of us discover that with God all things are possible, and the results are far greater than anything we could imagine.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.