Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 3, 2013

Pearl, Pluto and the joy of projects

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— Watching hundreds of Mercer County students gather for the county’s recent social studies fair at the mall brought me back to the day, not too long ago, when I found myself wearing a homespun prairie dress and straw hat in front of my fourth grade class.

We were doing our Tennessee history unit and the day was famous Tennessean day. I found myself dressed as country music comedienne Minnie Pearl who hailed from Hickman County, just an hour-and-a-half drive from where we lived.

It had been easy enough to put together. My mother had a straw hat, I had a prairie dress, and once my mother affixed the requisite price tag to the hat, all I had to do was memorize my speech. I don’t remember much about the project, other than I introduced myself to my classroom with a rather loud, drawn out “HOWDY!”

There are some requisite projects it seems like everyone has done. It seems like everyone has made or at least seen one of those volcano projects where someone put too much baking soda and vinegar together, overwhelming the teacher’s desk or flooding the gym floor during the science fair.

Back in the good old days when Pluto was still a planet, I was one of the many students who took ping-pong balls and Styrofoam to create a diorama of the solar system. Having a young brother and sister, I am sure my sun and planets were reused in subsequent dioramas so Mom and Dad wouldn’t have to make another trip to the store and shell out more money.

Of all the types of projects, I think a lot of people feel group projects were, by far, the worst. Unless you had a fun teacher who let you pick your own partner, you and your parents often found yourselves trying to coordinate a time to meet between all of the little league games, ballet classes and other events. Even when picking our own partner, there was always that brief moment — or ten — of fear that no one wanted to be your partner and you would be the odd one out. Nothing is more embarrassing than being assigned a project partner after no one else wanted to work with you.

I think these projects are sometimes more stressful on the parents than on the kids. After all, someone has to drive to the store, pay for the materials like poster boards and paint and then often help put the whole thing together. Then these parents often have to deal with the perfectionist child who flips out when her project isn’t absolutely perfect (read: me) or the child who waits until six hours before said project is due to get started (read: my little brother). In fact, I think my brother once found my four-year-old cell project for biology and asked if he could bring it in as his own for science class.

Of course, then there are the in-class projects. I remember fondly the days of raising tadpoles into frogs and caterpillars into butterflies in elementary school. There was a sense of wonder in checking in on these tiny creatures every day only to part with them when they were let free in the bushes or creek behind our elementary school.

We also did in-class poetry books, book reports and tons of other assignments requiring displays, demonstrations and occasionally costumes. It was back when there was no obvious choice between finding reputable sources in the scary, non-fiction section of the library or on the dial-up Internet on the school’s unreliable computers.

To tell the truth, I probably remember a lot more about the topics I did projects on than the ones we just covered in boring lectures and transparency notes. I did tons of poster board displays on everything from Sequoia’s development of the Cherokee language to the endangered Okapi for classes. The hot-glued fake trees and animals of the tundra biome project I did for science class remained on my desk in my room for several months before getting tossed out. My saltpeter model of the geography of Tennessee was kept somewhere until it dried, cracked and had to be tossed. Somewhere in the recesses of my parents’ attic is probably the remains of at least one solar system model one of the three of us kids made. I would bet that solar system model has been stepped on at least once, as well.

Seeing other kids in their own costumes, running through speeches at the last minute and making sure displays were glued tightly together was a nice trip back to those days when I did projects in school. I did learn a lot not only about history, science and other subjects but things like speaking in front of a crowd, time management and how to do research. But, honesty, I don’t think I’ll miss out on too much if I never have to glue another pipe cleaner to something again.

Kate Coil is a reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at