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)

While the team holds fundraisers throughout the year to help finance the club, the money for travel to regional and invitational tournaments comes from the students’ parents. “A trip to Philadelphia cost us $1500, Nationals will cost us around $9000,” says Piluk. One of the difficult aspects of starting a Science Olympiad team, Piluk notes, is the money to compete. Luckily, the socio-economic makeup of his school’s surrounding area allows for parents to absorb the travel costs. “If this wasn’t the case, I’m not sure how we’d make it happen,” he said.

Piluk and the team have high hopes for, Helicopters, another build event. For this one, students construct and test a free-flight rubber-powered helicopter (ahead of time) to achieve a maximum flight time.

In the hall outside Piluk’s classroom, senior Ajith Varghese and junior Christopher Lo are winding up their helicopter for a test flight. The craft is made of balsa wood and Mylar. A tightly wound rubber band serves at the helicopter’s engine.

“Three, two, one, go!” says Varghese as he releases the helicopter. The propellers whirl and it heads straight up to the ceiling where it hits but continues to spin, and spin.

“We put a lot of research into the rubber band that we use. A lot of people just use the rubber band that comes in the kit. But that doesn’t give it enough time to unwind and it’s also heavier,” says Varghese.

At the beginning of the year it took Varghese and Lo 3 days to build one helicopter. They’ve now got the process down to one day. In addition to the rubber band, they’ve done a lot of fine-tuning to increase airtime – shaving down the wood in certain areas, and carefully placing the Mylar on so it is not stretched straight across and taught. “You actually need a lot of little bends and wrinkles to help increase lift,” explains Varghese.

Their helicopter took first place at the Maryland state tournament.  “We hit around 2.5 minutes. We don’t know the national record because they change the requirements from year-to-year. Plus people don’t like posting it, they don’t want other teams to know what they need to beat,” says Lo. One thing they do know is the competition will be fierce. At the national level, Varghese says it’s “hard core.”

Centennial will have their work cut out for them in every event. These newbies will be going up against established teams with over a decade of experience, multiple coaches and “bench players” -- some schools bring up to 30 players, even though only 15 can compete. Most of these extra students are there to get seasoning for next year’s tournament.

We are young, this is our first time, we’ve only competed against a dozen Maryland schools and some schools in Pennsylvania, albeit they are strong schools with Nationals experience -- and the Pennsylvania schools beat us pretty good, notes Piluk. 

Despite the odds and the pressure, Piluk thinks his team will do well – possibly even medal. And if they somehow manage a first place in any event, he’s told them he’ll do a back flip. “I’d like us to rank somewhere between 20-30 out of 60 teams,” Piluk said.

But no matter how they do in Orlando, they go as winners --- Maryland’s state champions.

Tournament day

It’s a hot and sunny day in Orlando. Over 2000 students from 120 U.S. schools have fanned out across the University of Central Florida’s campus to compete in this year’s Science Olympiad tournament held May 18-19. In a gymnasium behind UCF’s basketball arena, kids are making final adjustments to their “builds” before being called to compete. Floors are carefully wiped down for the gravity vehicles, rubber bands are wound for the helicopters and robot arms are tested one last time.

Watch highlights from the 2012 Science Olympiad Tournament in Orlando, Florida

The models are impressive: Double rotor helicopters with tails, robot arms worthy of a spot on a factory’s assembly line, musical instruments shellacked to look like real cellos and violins.