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Grim's Tales: Viral hoax videos have a positive side

Photo illustration, Metro Creative Graphics, Inc. / Echo Journal

I'm sure I'm not the only person out there who becomes rather frustrated with all the stupid viral videos on the web today. One of the first that caught my attention was the "plastic snow" video that taught people, "if you don't know what's going on, be afraid, be very afraid."

I found a positive side to having a nearly endless supply of these videos. There has never been such a fertile source of science fair hypotheses as there is now in internet videos. Testing the hypotheses given in these videos could provide educational projects to teach students the scientific process, along with the dangers of jumping to conclusions.

Take, for example, videos circulating the web trying to prove that single-wrapped American cheese slices are up to 60 percent plastic. In the videos, people hold a lighter under a slice of American cheese and watch as it burns instead of melts. That's fascinating. The video consumers then wonder "why," while probably feeling a little disturbed. This opens them to suggestion.

However, when we have questions, our first reaction shouldn't be fear. It should be curiosity. How could a student make a science fair project with this information?

The scientific process starts with asking a question. In this case, questions inspired by the video could be, "Why does the cheese burn and not melt?" "What is the cheese made of?" Note that, "Is the cheese plastic?" is probably starting with an assumption.

Next, the student does research. Research would include claims the video hosts and manufacturers make, the ingredients listed on the packaging, as well as information from culinary experts with American cheese recipes.

Next you need a hypothesis. Start with the video hypothesis: The cheese is made of plastic. Next are the experiments.

Experiments should demonstrate how other cheese would react to open flame and how plastic would react to open flame compared to the control - a piece of commercial American cheese. With help from an adult, the student may even be able to make a disgusting amalgamation of dairy product and plastic that would match the assumptions of the hypothesis by melting or grinding plastic. In either case, the flames must be the same and the cheese slices as close to equivalent as possible.

If the other cheese melts the same as the American cheese, then the first hypothesis is already defeated. If it does not, then there is something different about the American cheese. If plastic melts or burns differently from the cheese, the original hypothesis is unlikely.

If the homemade combination of dairy and plastic does not work, or does not melt the same, the first hypothesis is again brought into question. If the other cheese does not melt the same as the American cheese, but the other items also melt differently, this still does not answer the original question.

The American cheese is different from cheddar, but it also might not be plastic because that also reacted differently. The student must try another hypothesis.

You might need a second hypothesis: American cheese is made of a combination of melting salts and oils. If this is true, the student should be able to recreate the burning effect seen in the commercial product by making a homemade cheese with similar ingredients. The important part is to test slices that are as close to the same size as possible.

The student tests the second hypothesis by doing the same exact melt test as before.

Now, the student compares the results of hypothesis 1 with the results of hypothesis 2 to determine which result most closely resembles the result with the commercial product. The student should explain why results from one test don't match the commercial cheese. The student then can reach a reasonable conclusion on what commercial American cheese is made of, according to which melt test was similar.

A student can document the whole process with the original viral videos, videos of their cheese-making process, the recipes, a description of the characteristics of each cheese product and video of the melt tests and photos of the test subjects before and after the melt tests side by side.

I had some pretty lame science fair projects growing up. I'll admit I didn't want to do them and so I didn't exactly put much effort into the process. I wish I had viral videos to test.

I can't say it would have made me more engaged, but a guy can dream, right?

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