Science fair season is upon us. Across the country and around the world, tens of thousands of elementary- and middle-school-aged kids will plop, fizz, concoct, and create, in an attempt to wow their school's judges and win the admiration of fellow students and teachers alike.

And tens of thousands of parents will stay up late the night before the big event, helping put the finishing touches on the "child's" project.

Let's face it, the science fair is one more time for parents to prove their worth to the school administration and the teachers. If your kid shows up with a half-baked project, or worse yet, no project at all, it's not the kid who ultimately looks bad -- it's poor old Mom and Dad. So to keep your sanity and help your kid make a good showing at the same time, here are some tips for surviving science fair season:

  1. Plan ahead. I know it's common sense, but this time of year seems to be full of projects (in one week, we had a Poseidon costume, a state report PowerPoint presentation, and the science fair -- can you say MOM INSANITY?). As soon as the science fair info comes home from school, sit down with your child and decide RIGHT THEN AND THERE a general topic for her project. Then put together a loose schedule for keeping things on track. 
  2. Read the Instructions. Apparently, there's a specific format that many schools adhere to for their science fair projects. Apparently, this mom didn't read all the information. Apparently,  my daughter isn't speaking to me because her project wasn't "right." Apparently, that's my fault. 
  3. Let the child drive the project. No matter how much your inner helicopter parent wants your child to "succeed," this whole process is about learning -- and your kid might learn just as much (or even more) from taking a few missteps along the way. After all, what better demonstration of the scientific process than the ability to learn from mistakes? 
  4. Help with the process. Letting your kid be in charge doesn't mean you can't help. You can -- and should! But confine your assistance to an assistant's role (do you like that play on words? It took me hours). Ask questions, point things out, give your input when requested, but stay out of the driver's seat. I know, I know, it's tough.
  5. Let the child drive the project. Did I say that already? My favorite experiments at the fair last week were the ones where the kids had clearly done most of the work. The display on "What Bubblegum Blows the Biggest Bubbles?" was awesome. The two little girls with the obviously kid-made poster on dyeing flowers were dying (haha!) to share their results with me.

    Less impressive was the display on electromagnetic conduction (or something like that). The poster was commercial-quality, and the results were ready to be published in next month's Physics Today. But the poor kid had no idea what the whole thing was about and couldn't talk intelligently about the experiment, what he'd learned, or his results. Sad. 
  6. Keep a sense of humor. When the volcano doesn't erupt, or the poster falls over, or there are five other kids with the same project on popcorn that you were sure would be unique and memorable, there's only one thing to do: Laugh. When it comes to science, everything's a lesson, and the best lesson of all just might be to not get too attached to the outcome. If that doesn't work, check out some of these hilarious science projects from fairs past.