Maryland high school makes first trip to National Science Olympiad Tournament

June 11, 2012 | Author: AAAS MemberCentral Project Director and Managing Editor Peggy Mihelich
Senior Joseph Ayoub, left and junior Aneesh Agrawal go over the insulator (small wooden box on right) for the Science Olympiad Thermodynamics event. (Photo: Peggy Mihelich/AAAS)

“Get excited, get happy, get pumped,” senior Joseph Ayoub tells his Science Olympiad teammates during an afterschool study session at Maryland’s Centennial High School in early May. “We are going to Florida! We are representing our school, our state, our community,” Ayoub said.

Ayoub and his 14 teammates are gearing up for the National Science Olympiad Tournament in Orlando -- a science competition for middle school and high school students that plays out like an athletic track meet. In one day, they will go head-to-head with teams from across the U.S. in 23 events and 2 trial events that will test their knowledge and building skills in a wide array of scientific disciplines like genetics, earth science, chemistry, anatomy, physics, geology, mechanical engineering and mathematics.

This is Centennial’s first trip to the tournament, and the team is filled with nervous anticipation. They are lead by their coach Jason Piluk, the school’s biology teacher. Piluk started the program 4 years ago and has been steadily building the team each year with this goal in mind.

“The students came to me and wanted to start the club and needed a coach – I didn’t even know what it [Science Olympiad] was,” admits Piluk. Piluk serves as team advisor and helps with logistics, like travel to regional and state tournaments. The students, lead by officers (typically seniors), oversee fundraisers, develop and implement pre-season tests (a.k.a., "tryouts"), mentor, analyze data and competition results, and maintain lines of communication between club members.

Students meet after school weekly and bi-weekly throughout the year for up to two hours a day. As competitions approach, meetings increase to two times a week and just prior to a competition students meet every day of the week.

The club has about 45 members, but only 15 are allowed to compete in Orlando, so Piluk has assembled a varsity team of mostly juniors and seniors -- nine boys and six girls.

Students compete in teams of 2-3 with each student competing in multiple events. For example, junior Seung Lee will be competing in 4 events.

“I am doing Thermodynamics, Chemistry Lab, Technical Problem Solving and Fermi Questions,” said Lee as he tinkered with the insulator for the Thermodynamics event in Piluk’s classroom. In this hands-on, inquiry-based event, teams must construct an insulated device ahead of time that is designed to retain heat. They also complete a written test on thermodynamic concepts, all within 50 minutes. Lee’s insulator is a small wooden box lined with insulation with a beaker in the center of it. A thermometer placed in the beaker tracks the temperature. “We have to keep it as hot as possible and predict what temperature it will be at by the end of a certain amount of time,” explains Lee.

Not far from where Lee is working on the insulator, junior Jacqueline Chen and senior Ge Zhang are pouring over The Sibley Guide to Trees. They are prepping for the Forestry event that requires identifying North American trees given their leaves and other parts. With the tournament just two weeks away they are in cram mode. “We’ve only competed in Maryland and Pennsylvania, so we’ve only had to know eastern trees but now that we are going to Nationals, we have to know all these western trees too,” says Chen. Before joining the club Chen and Zhang both admit they didn’t know much about trees, but that’s all changed. “When I’m going home on the bus, bored and starring out the window, I’ll see all these trees around and I’ll be like 'I know that pine!'” Zhang said.

And that is one of the goals of Science Olympiad, to spark kids interest in science and encourage them to pursue STEM degrees.

Helicopters, robot arm and musical instruments

While most of the 23 events are written tests, there are a handful of model building challenges. Piluk and his students refer to them as “the builds.” Among this year’s “builds” – construct two different musical instruments of any type based on a 12-tone tempered scale, design and build the most efficient tower possible, built a robot arm that can pick up objects and move them into scoring positions.

In the Gravity Vehicle event, teams design, build and test a vehicle and ramp that uses gravitational potential energy as the vehicle’s sole means of propulsion to reach a target point as quickly, as accurately and as close to the predicted time as possible.

The cost to build these models can put a dent in the club’s budget, so they applied for and received grant money from Northrop Grumman  -- $300 each to build their robot arm and tower.