Earlier this month, many Western New York high schools competed in the regional New York State Science Olympiad held on the Canisius College campus. There are separate Science Olympiads for lower schools, middle schools and high schools. This one was just for high schools.
You might be wondering just what a Science Olympiad is. The national Science Olympiad organization compares it to a track meet, and it really is like one. In a track meet, there are different events that test different kinds of skills, like the 4 x 100 meters relay, the high jump and the shot put. In a Science Olympiad, there are also many different kinds of events that test different skills and, just like at a track meet, each school sends a team with people who specialize in specific events. Also, just as in track meets, each school has a "uniform" which is usually a special T-shirt made up for everyone on the team to wear.
The Science Olympiad events are either tests of science knowledge, tests of scientific problem-solving or events that require you to build something beforehand and then the event tests which team built the best device.
One of the tests of scientific knowledge is Geologic Mapping, where students use their ability to interpret different kinds of scientific maps and other scientific data to identify potential geohazard risks like landslides or tsunamis.
One of the most challenging tests of scientific problem-solving is Write It/Do It. This is a technical writing exercise for a two-person team. One student writes a description of something that has to be built and the other student has to create it using only the written description. They cannot talk to each other.
The events requiring the most time-consuming preparation are the events where you have to build something beforehand. There is the Sounds of Music event where students have to build a musical instrument from scratch and be prepared to describe the scientific principles behind how it works and also be able to perform music on their instrument, including a required melody and a melody of their own choice.
Another event that requires students to build something beforehand is the Helicopter event. Here, students design and build a rubberband-powered helicopter prior to the tournament. Basically, the winner is the team with the helicopter that stays up in the air the longest.
Nicole Kasper of Starpoint High School said the most difficult event for her was Sounds of Music because there are all kinds of complications in trying to build a musical instrument from parts that are different from the ones normally used to build instruments.
Matt Garis of Nichols said, for him, the hardest part was Write It/Do It.
"You have no idea what your teammate will encounter, so you have to write a super accurate description of exactly what has to be built," Matt said. "The written description is the only communication you have."
Christopher Joshi of Clarence High School and Emily Zhou of Williamsville East High School both said it was Geological Mapping, because you have to do a lot of studying beforehand to get ready.
Many of the competitors said they learned a lot about teamwork and communicating with other people, including their teachers.
Nicole said she got to see "different areas of science that I wouldn't have explored otherwise."
Emily and many others said they believed this has helped them learn how to manage their time effectively, and also how to deal with pressure.
Christopher said working on the Helicopter event showed him that "absolutely everything can make a difference."
Just like any other team competition, all the teams have coaches. Many of the teams spend three to four months with their coach preparing for the competition.
Lawrence Hiller, the coach of the team from Nichols School, said he faced some real challenges getting the team ready. Like most schools, the students on his team already had lots of demands on their time. Between sports, clubs and, of course all their schoolwork, it was hard for the team to find as much time as they wanted to to work on getting ready for all of the events.
Also, they lost 14 seniors to graduation from last year's team, so 20 of the 30 members of this year's team had never participated in a Science Olympiad before. However, he said, "all of the new team members now understand how competitive Science Olympiad is, and they are already making plans to improve for next year."
Just like in any type of competition, having some experience really helps a lot.
So what was the best part of doing this?
Again and again, students said it was making new friends and getting to hang out with other people who love science. Not surprisingly, most of the competitors want to study science or engineering in college, and this was a great way to experience what that life would be like.
John Tank is a junior at Nichols School.