Science Project


June 22, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

In honor of my daughter’s graduation from the University of Chicago last weekend – with a Master’s in Divinity, no less –  I’m posting a story about her that first appeared in our church newsletter when we lived in Nashville, Tennessee, and that I’ve told many, many times since. She is a very excellent daughter, and her mother is very proud.

My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.

When my daughter Maggie was in the third grade, she began to study the solar system. She came home reciting this, then she told me the names of the planets in their proper order: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and – back in 1994, when we had nine planets* – Pluto.

I remember science being fun in elementary school, although none of my experiments ever really worked right.

Vinegar and baking soda never blew up my balloon.

Secret messages written in lemon juice remained invisible, no matter how many candles I passed over them.

The paper maché moon I made for the Science Fair… grew mold in its craters.  It was the only moon in the solar system with life forms, but the Science Fair judges were not impressed.

Still, I had fun. And I learned something.

But when my daughter came home with a science project to make a model of Jupiter, I forgot what was fun about science. It had to be right. That’s what mothers are for.

I forgot the words of the Magic School Bus‘s Ms. Frizzle, whose scientific method is more crucial to school projects than Carl Sagan’s: “Make mistakes. Take chances. Get messy.”

I should have known from the beginning any planet that was nothing but a big ball of gas was going to cause trouble.

First the modeling clay did not come in the right colors.

You can’t do the Great Red Spot without red.

“That’s all right,” I said to Maggie. “We’ll get self hardening clay, and we’ll paint it.” But in a move completely out of character for the Father of the gods, Jupiter refused to get hard.

Jupiter and its Great Red Spot by Elisabetta Fratt, 12

Jupiter and its Great Red Spot by Elisabetta Fratt, 12. All drawings courtesy

“It’s cracking all over,” said Maggie. “And it’s still soft inside.”

“All planets have cracks,” I said.

She painted the surface in whites and oranges and yellows, and in the middle laid a big red splotch.

Her brow wrinkled.

“It has a faint system of rings,” she said.

We wound a belt of pipe cleaners round the middle.

Planet Jupiter and Its Moons by Sofia di Tona, Age 11.  All drawings courtesy

Planet Jupiter by Sofia di Tona, Age 11.

The day before Jupiter was due I found the instruction sheet for the project underneath our tax forms: “Construct a model of a planet and its moons.”

“Just how many moons does Jupiter have?” I asked Maggie.


Too late to get more self hardening clay. We would use some of that corn starch stuff, like in Vacation Bible School.

Maggie made the moons in various sizes. The four discovered by Galileo had to be bigger. She painted the cardboard base of her model midnight blue. Then she cut pipe cleaners and inserted them into the moons. We’d stand them up in orbit around Jupiter.

That was my idea.

Apparently I was just a little before my time.

Apparently I was just a little before my time.

I should have known any planet that was nothing but a big ball of gas would be a stinker when it came to its moons.

They didn’t dry either. We painted the moons while the clay was still wet.

Maggie and her dad gave the Galilean moons features: Io was red and brown, Europa finely crackled. Ganymede and Callisto got pockmarked with a pencil.

“We’ll attach the moons after supper when the paint dries,” I said. It didn’t. We attached the moons while the paint was still wet. Fingerprints, like atmospheric storms, swirled their surfaces. I stood one up on the base. Wet corn starch is heavy, and the pipe cleaner drooped despondently.

“We should have gotten styrofoam balls, Mom. Rose brought hers in a day early and she used styrofoam balls.”

I looked at the project with dismay. Visions of moldy paper mache swam before my eyes. I should have known.

“We’ll glue tacks to the base and poke the moons on those,” Maggie’s dad suggested.

Maggie plunked the tacks on, then the moons.

“You have ten moons on one side,” I said.

“I couldn’t reach,” said Maggie.

“The Jovian system has always had low harmonic convergence,” said my husband. Who could argue with that?

It was windy and cold the day I walked Maggie to school with the Jovian system.

Several moons abandoned their harmonic convergence, as well as their thumbtacks, by the time we got there. Children gathered in the hall before the classroom door. Mrs. Zimmerman had not arrived yet.

“See, Mom?” said Maggie, pointing to another girl’s project. “Styrofoam balls and spray paint.” It was a very neat project. Obviously this child’s mother was an astrophysicist.   Or she worked at Michael’s.

The children surrounded the Progeny of Genius Mother and her perfect model.

“Where are Saturn’s rings?” one asked.

The child shrugged.

Another: “Why is Pluto pink?”

“I like pink,” she said.

I kissed Maggie goodbye and went to pay for her milk tickets.

It wasn’t until I was done that I realized I still had her gloves in my hands. When I came back up the stairs the kids were all gathered around Maggie’s project. And there was my daughter. Her flyaway hair shot out around her head like Einstein’s.

“That’s Io,” she said. “It’s red and brown because it has sulfuric acid volcanos. That’s Europa. It has ice and an atmosphere.”

Volcanism on Io, Nemi Cicchinelli, Age 11

Volcanism on Io, Nemi Cicchinelli, Age 11

“What are these two with the pencil holes in them?”

“Those aren’t pencil holes, Phillip. They’re craters. That’s Callisto and Ganymede,” she said. “All of Jupiter’s moons were named after Jupiter’s girlfriends.”

Ganymede was a little boy, actually, but I was not prepared to explain. I handed my daughter her gloves. My hands had wet paint on them.

“Have a good day, sweetie,” I said. “Make mistakes. Take chances. Get messy.”

Carl Sagan had a good laugh on Cosmos at the music of the spheres. Angels pushing the planets around made him giggle. But I know where the angels went after Carl made fun of them. They were reassigned – to science projects.

Aidan and Maggie at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL, mid 1990's.

Maggie and her brother Aidan at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL, mid 1990’s.

* Update:  Apparently Pluto may be a planet again.

13 thoughts on “Science Project

  1. burke59 says:

    Very cute…love the art work and the lollipops! And I feel a little disappointed about the Pluto thing, too. Cheers! Celeste


  2. Norah says:

    What a great story, Paula. Congratulations to you and to Maggie on her success. She couldn’t have done it without you. I’m with you and Ms. Frizzle. I’d love to be able to teach the way Ms Frizzle does!


  3. You know, Norah, when I saw there’d been a comment on the post overnight, I knew it would be you. It seemed like the kind of story you would appreciate. Thanks so much for reading.


  4. (Totally can’t figure out if this posted or not, so I’m trying again.)

    This story is so endearing; it makes me love Maggie and her perseverance. I worked at Pacific Science Center (a children’s science museum) for seven years, as a planetarium demonstrator, and got to write and perform planetarium shows and science theatre. The pay was horrendous – like, BEYOND horrendous – but I loved the work so much because I got paid to make CRAFTS and be creative and write and direct and act (albeit, usually in the dark. really, it’s better that way in my case). I wrote a play that was a spoof of morning talk shows called “Good Morning, Galaxy!” (it had a theme song and everything, that, embarrassingly, I could still sing you), and for that, I made not only styrofoam puppets of Pluto and Uranus, but these huge soft-sculpture silver lycra star heads that the two hosts wore….I made 40 moons-on-sticks for our Moon Show, which required spray painting tennis balls white and stabbing them with dowels…and because I was working there at the time that Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter, I got nightly looks through a telescope at Jupiter being bruised and battered by comet chunk impacts, which I still think is so incredibly cool. Point being, I relate with much warmth to anyone who feels enthusiasm for the solar system, and who wants to bring it down to an earthly level in whatever way possible. :) And that effort? That is some enthusiasm. Bravo, Nancarrow family.


    • Thanks, sweetie. I could swear I remember you in the Tellabration audience sitting right next to Loren in the daytime performance at which I first told this story, laughing when I commented on Jupiter refusing to get hard. But who knows. I may have attached that memory to an entirely different event. When I was looking for pictures, you would not believe the amount of cosplay stuff I found. Mythic status, that woman has. You would be a great Ms. Frizzle.


      • Magic School Bus cosplay…oh, my gosh. I had never even considered that possibility, and now? Now I’m imagining the next logical step: the slashfic pairing of Ms. Frizzle and Bill Nye.
        Think about Jupiter, Amy, think about Jupiter.
        Anyway, nope, I swear that wasn’t me in the audience, but I bet it was Laura Bidgood, since at first glance we’re the same person, and she would have the good sense to laugh at planetary viscosity. :)


  5. Lovely story, Paula. Humour, pathos and a satisfyingly messy ending – sounds like Maggie was one together daughter who knew her facts – regardless of what they resembled!


  6. lorilschafer says:

    What an adorable story, Paula. I do think you should have gotten extra credit for the life forms, though ;)


  7. Thanks, Lori. I guess I missed my calling as a mad scientist…


  8. […] writing three posts about my relationship to storytelling (which you can read here) plus publishing my own post as well, was a lot. So being behind doesn’t feel like anything I need to attach blame […]


  9. […] (She of the Einstein Hair) and Baby Aidan. He’s probably six months old […]


  10. Such a cute story! I loved it. And yes, so many of us are afraid of getting messy, or making mistakes, but when it comes to creativity that’s where a lot of the magic happens. :)


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