Advice From Rice: A Science Fair Shocker

  • Middle School
Kristin Leong

When researcher Masaru Emoto played Mozart for bowls of water and prayed over lakes, the water molecules responded by morphing into various snowflake forms. His 2005 New York Times bestseller The Hidden Messages in Water which documented the effect of good and bad vibes on water was blown off as “woo-woo” ramblings by the scientific community and hailed as crucial evidence of the power of our “energy” by yoga teachers and poets everywhere.

In one of his most famous experiments, Emoto divided rice and water into three cups and spoke to each one every day for a month. The first he thanked, the second he insulted, and the third he ignored.

The results: The thanked rice fermented pleasantly. The insulted rice stank and rotted. The ignored rice fared worst of all: turning black and foul, apathy proving to be a far worse experience than outright abuse.

We should be careful, Dr. Emoto concluded in a bit of a thematic leap, about how we speak to children.

Even if it didn’t work (OF COURSE IT WOULDN’T WORK), the message sounded like a good one to investigate for a second grader’s STEM fair project. We watched the video. My son was into it. My hope swelled that four weeks of talking to rice might distract a little from Pokemon.

The boy set the terms: every morning he would yell “You idiot!” at one jar, as Emoto did in his experiment. But instead of thanking the second jar like Emoto, my kid opted for a declaration of love. I suspect this is probably significant. But I digress.

When nothing happened the first week, I gave my disappointed and impatient son the requisite speech about how scientists (and all of us!) learn through failing. But then the most unlikely scenario began to unfold in our living room.

Around week two, the “You idiot!” jar started to smell faintly sour and then began to build up a yellowish ring around the waterline that was steadily separating from the rice, while the “I love you” jar remained mostly unchanged.

OMG, and also, WTH, were my reactions while I resisted my helicopter parent urges to start stirring, yelling at, and tweeting about the jars myself. My kid seemed satisfied, as if the rice had finally figured out what it was supposed to do.

Full disclosure about the “science” that was not so exact in this experiment. There was no ignored jar because we could not find a third jar on the day the experiment was set up, which meant no control variable. The measurements for the rice and water were eye-balled. His observations were taken at random intervals when he remembered to do it. The jars were moved around a lot for pictures/Pokemon/that thing where he pretends he’s doing capoeira while brandishing a spatula. And although I encouraged him to count bubbles and measure water levels, my kid, who is clearly the child of an English teacher, insisted instead to note his observations in a more narrative format throughout the month.

Some highlights from his science journal:

“The You Idiot rice smells like somebody jumped inside your nose and started punching it.” (day 21)

“The You Idiot rice smells like dog farts.” (day 18)

“The I Love You rice smells like laundry detergent.” (day 30)

I felt this last observation was somewhat optimistic. I would say it smelled like an old bowl of Cheerios. Everything else is pretty accurate.

By the end of the 30 days, I was thrilled and bewildered with the differences between the two jars. My eight-year-old son was unimpressed. “Of course,” he concluded, “I knew it would work.”

The jars on the final day of month-long the experiment.
The jars of rice and water from Little Leong’s second grade STEM fair project on the final day of the month-long experiment inspired by Masaru Emoto.

At the STEM fair I witnessed adults and kids mirror our reactions. Parents checked out his trifold with amused suspicion while fellow second graders glanced over his display like, yeah, okay, whatever.

Maybe children are just more comfortable with magic. Or maybe children know better than adults that what comes out of our mouths is powerful. Children are reminded to say please and thank you. They’re told not to say anything at all if they have nothing nice to say. They listen to bedtime stories about the unfortunate fates of little boys who tell lies about wolves.

In short, children are taught over and over again that when we use our words, things happen.

Or, in the wise words of my kid’s science project conclusion, “words matter in what you say and what you say affects things around you.”

Grown ups–parents, teachers–take note. Say something nice to your kids. Say something nice to yourself. Only three more weeks until summer break. We can do it.


Other recent posts by Kristin:

Mostly Appropriate Resources #4: Education’s Race Problem in the Fishbowl

Mostly Appropriate Resources #3: Show > Tell 

Video: Students on Success and a Week Without Grades 

Advertising Creative Director Keri Zierler strongly suggested that I title this post “Be Nice to Rice and Other Grains of Advice.” I shunned this advice. Was I wrong??? Let your voice be heard on Twitter using #advicefromrice or #benicetorice.

  • Project Based Learning
  • Science
  • STEM
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