Dad, I need to build an atom of Krypton.

This is what my son told me one Sunday.  I wasn’t sure if it this was an assignment for a science class or if he just wanted to kill Superman.   Not that it mattered much; I understood the message.  He wanted my help.  

I accept the importance of projects in schools; they are fun, they reinforce learning through activity, and they promote imagination and industry.   But perhaps even more important, classroom projects teach our children planning and time management skills. 

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It’s due tomorrow, he added.

But I also believe that despite the educational value school projects afford, they are a burden on parents.  At minimum we become the sourcing agents for empty egg cartons, yarn, paint, glue, tape, cans, and assorted trinkets that we know we have, but cannot find.  But more often than not, we become the master architect of our kids’ success, at least as it contributes to 3D grade points.

Not too long ago I helped my daughter construct a shoebox diorama of the desert for a social studies class.   I don’t typically save empty shoeboxes, so I ran out to buy her a pair of shoes.   She wanted to glue sand on the bottom of the box.  I also don’t usually keep sand in the house, so I bought a 50-pound bag at the hardware store even though I only used a tablespoon.  The open bottle of Elmer’s glue I found in the junk drawer was dried out, so I helped her secure the sand down with scotch tape. 

She forlornly presented her raggedy diorama in class just after a kid who proudly displayed a shoebox mounted with Plexiglas and reinforced with copper tubing.  The clever terrarium was home to a live lizard.  

Unfortunately, I don’t usually keep welding torches or lizards in my house either.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe classroom projects are great for inventive, resourceful, and organized parents.  But for creatively challenged parents like me who believe active involvement in their children’s endeavors may actually threaten their education, or at least throw them into therapy, classroom projects are a cause for alarm.

So you can imagine how nervous I was when my son asked for my help.

He assured me that his project could be constructed with everyday items found around the house.  After hours of searching, I concluded these everyday items must be in someone else’s house, because I couldn’t seem to find modeling clay or Popsicle sticks anywhere. 

“Can’t we just buy an atom at Target?”  I begged him.

We ultimately constructed his Krypton atom on a plastic dinner plate with decorative concentric rings around the outside.   “These are the electron orbits,” he informed me.  Then we molded a Styrofoam hamburger container with glue to the center of the plate.  “This is the nucleus,” he instructed me while I searched for colored thumbtacks to serve as protons and neutrons.

We needed 36 tacks.  I could only find 3.   “That’s OK,” he said.  “This atom can be an isotope.”

I wasn’t sure exactly what a Krypton isotope was, but I somehow felt better knowing we weren’t plunging sharp metal pins into a critical mass of Plutonium.

We spent a few hours together, my son and I, bonding tight like elemental molecules.   He taught me about the Periodic Table and introduced me to concepts like atomic numbers and electron pairing and state transition – concepts that I will no doubt need if I ever became a chemist.  

He also introduced me to properties like patience and perseverance and acceptance – traits that I will no doubt need if I ever become a better parent.  “You will make a good father one day,” I told him, holding up our Krypton atom.

It looked like a pile of radioactive pudding.

“Don’t worry,” he reassured me.  “Krypton is an odorless, colorless gas. No one can see it anyway.”  And just as he said this, his eyes sparked with recognition like a billion inspired electrons.

“How did it go?” I asked the next day, fearful that I had ruined his project.

“I gave a presentation on Krypton, but I didn’t use the model,” he told me nonchalantly.  “The kid before me came in with a six-foot tinker toy representation of Carbon enclosed in a glass pedestal display case.   The teacher gave him 80 points for his model and 10 points for his presentation.”

I was horrified.  You didn’t use the model we built?

“I told the class that I built a life size representation of an atom of Krypton and the teacher gave me 90 points for presentation and 0 points for my model.”   Then he held out his hand to show me.   There was nothing in it.  

“It is pretty small,” he said with a smile.