Skip to main Content

Geek mom: Using science to keep sane this spring break

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published March 13, 2016

Mere hours into day one of spring break 2016, my household descended into anarchy. It's a cruel fate to have to referee a ridiculously intense, and just plain ridiculous, kid fight before the coffee is even brewed.

I suppose if I was 10 or 11 years old I might see the reasoning in defending space on the couch as if your life depended on it. Or, once having secured said spot on the couch, delighting in having all five sleeping bags to yourself and a single ice pack someone pilfered from the freezer so you don't get too hot while buried under layers of down.

Even during the simple process of tapping out the words for this piece on my keyboard, I had to fend off my toddler, who was intent on chewing through my iPhone's power cord like a puppy. While it was plugged into my computer. After we'd already talked about it too many times to keep count.

The night before that first-day-of-spring-break chaos, we'd visited Polaris K-12 School's science night and project expo, a hands-on event where science projects are on display and dive-in-and-participate science demonstrations are at the ready.

The Van de Graaff generator was especially fun. The mad scientist in charge of the electrified, hollow metal globe generated miniature lightning strikes and made pie tins and glitter magically float in the air. There were squid to dissect, DNA to collect, Lego robots to drive and control, animal pelts to touch and demonstrations on how polar fleece, body fat and fur all keep us warm from the cold. My 2-year-old loved the petting zoo with Lulu the little black dog, Bunny the guinea pig and the birds, hamster and turtles.

The do-it-yourself Gak table gave one of our kids a chance to test his planned science project, homemade slime, which he'll make and document over spring break. Gak is a goo first sold and marketed years ago by Nickelodeon, but which is also easily made at home with Borax and washable Elmer's glue. A gooier, more translucent version of slime can be made with Borax and polyvinyl alcohol.

These recipes create variations of ultra-gross goo that makes me a little queasy when I touch it. I suspect the gross-out factor, more than the splats, fart-like noises and other joys that come with this gunk, is the true motivation behind our kid's interest in it. Far be it from me to tell the kid that in his attempt to wreak havoc with me that science know-how and facts will -- despite his best efforts at never, ever learning anything useful -- invade and settle into his evil genius mind.

Sanity-saving science projects

If your child has oodles of free time this spring break, science may just be your sanity super hero. Find a project. Carry it out. Document it. If there's still time, submit it to their individual school's science fair. Even if you don't participate in a school-based science fair, you can still enter the statewide Alaska Science and Engineering Fair April 1-3 at East High School in Anchorage. Registration is open to all students grades K-12 across Alaska.

The book includes experiments for lighting junk food on fire, splitting molecules, building wind tunnels and post-apocalyptic particle detectors. Coolest. Mom. Ever. Right?


My plan for household domination and joyful learning over spring break hit gridlock when the kids realized: a) the ideas came from a book, b) the book was purchased by me and c) I'd read the book and thought a lot of the experiments looked fun. It was dead on arrival. I'd tainted any possibility of these young minds entertaining a single experiment offered by author Ken Denmead.

Next time I know to start my plan with this edict: "Under no circumstances whatsoever will you open that book. You may not read that book. You may not attempt a single project from that book. That book is off limits."

It really is a great book. Just don't tell the kids. However you do it, do what you can to get their science minds whirring. Make it fun. In the words of Calvin, the mischievous cartoon character from the classic comic strip Calvin and Hobbes: "We've got to contend with vortexes and light speeds! Anything could go wrong! Of course we need to wear goggles!"

What would Calvin's dad say?

Funny thing about this comic strip: the cartoon dad is helping me get through the chaos of a week at home with our minions. Energetic, unsatisfied and curious about everything, they lob questions by the minute about everything from the origins of life to how the house's plumbing works to why we don't have the only particular food item they are willing to eat or why they can't do what they want when they want.

Calvin's dad has taught me that it's OK to let the kids know that bedtime is in their prenatal contract, only to be renegotiated when they turn 18. Babies come from Sears (except Calvin, who was "almost as good" and purchased as a blue light special from Kmart). When sneezing, humans close their eyes to prevent their eyeballs from flopping out of their skulls. The theory of relativity is tied to time zones and only works when traveling to the west.

When crafting responses to the inundation of, "Why? Why? Why?" I now ask myself, what would Calvin's dad say?

"Is that really what you want to ask as today's question?" I'll inquire, now that I've issued a one-question-per-day rule.

"That'll have to be tomorrow's question. You've already used up today's," and, "The complaint department is closed for the night," are other phrases I've incorporated into our daily discussions.

My current favorite, because its works as irritatingly well on the kids as the goo does on me, is, "All will be revealed."

This statement usually shows up after I've undergone a litany of interrogations about where we are going, why the kitchen has to be cleaned, why I can't or won't do a chore by myself, or about any other torrent of "whys" that flow at me unimpeded throughout the day.

Dishes are stacking up in the kitchen sink. Quibbling is as constant as the hum of our air purifier. But the sun is back and we've taken bike rides, had picnics, played at parks and watched a matinee showing of "The Good Dinosaur."

Our science projects are underway, and in the dark of night when quiet returns, we get to hear the happy hearts of happy children sneak in a few more golden moments. One kiddo laughs uproariously in his sleep. Another sings. A third snores. A fourth farts. And then we wake up, and once again begin our daily dance.

Will I survive the family spring break staycation? All will be revealed.

Jill Burke is a longtime Alaska journalist writing from the center of a busy family life. Her father swore by "Burke's Law No. 1 -- never take no for an answer." Meaning, don't give up in the face of adversity. The lesson stuck. One of her children attends Polaris. Share your ideas with her at, on Facebook or on Twitter.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)

For more newsletters click here

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.