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National Science Olympiad 2004

January 1, 2004

in All Articles,Culture

With the smell of sulfur and partially scorched PVC pipe tinting the air, I overheard someone mutter “We’re gonna need more matches.” How I love the Science Olympiad!

I competed in the Science Olympiad myself over fifteen years ago. When I first realized I would be attending the 2004 version, I assumed that the event had changed dramatically from when I was younger. After all, we now live in an era of increasingly affordable technology. Look at James Bond: His geeky gadgets and spy tools have changed drastically over the years. I thought the Olympiad changed too, with the only remaining similarities being an (often literally) electric atmosphere and lots and lots of duct tape.

As it turns out, I was completely wrong. Science Olympiad events are not games and tests using the latest in technology. I missed the point. We’re not a James Bond movie using gratuitous technology to pump the “gee-whiz” factor. The events dig deeper than that. The fact that almost everyone had cell phones and laptops and two-way radios had no real relation to the Olympiad’s core goals: It’s a unique test of students’ application of logic, knowledge, design and creativity. Improved technology, while evident, is just a sidebar. It’s just one of the many tools used to accomplish a goal. Something tells me James Bond wouldn’t score very well at the Olympiad!

Now, I don’t want to sound too dry and analytical. That’s not the Science Olympiad, because emotions run very high. Take the “Bridge Building” event. This is where students must BYOB, in this case “Build Your Own Bridge”. This miniature balsa wood bridge is loaded with more than thirty pounds. If the bridge holds, scores are determined by the bridge’s weight. If the bridge doesn’t hold, the bridge snaps dramatically, causing the test weight to slam to the floor amid pieces of the failed bridge. This is brutal: It’s one of the many examples where a student works very hard, developing a design over months or years, only to have it tested in less than a minute. If the design passes, relax. If the design fails, you find this out harshly: Your creation is destroyed before your eyes. I’m not exaggerating: While walking towards the stage waiting for our own teams to be tested, I had to step around a group that had already competed and failed. A group of four students were holding each other, and from within their tight circle I could hear heart-wrenching sobs. After that, I held my breath watching our team’s bridge get tested. From fifty feet away, I could see the students take visible sighs of relief when their creation held.

Some events have rules that inadvertently create other difficulties: The “Wright Stuff” competition involves designing and flying rubber-band powered balsa wood planes. The planes are wound up and let go in the biggest gym available. Total flying time is a main factor in points. However, to prevent drafts from interfering with the feather-light planes, the gym doors were closed. The gym ventilation was turned off. Temperatures outside were in the high eighties. And since people insist on breathing, the gym grew very humid and very warm. Do you remember “The Midnight Sun” Twilight Zone episode where the earth was moving closer to the sun, getting hotter and hotter, and thermometers started exploding? Well, it was hotter than that. But the planes did great. Frequently bouncing off the ceiling, staying up for minutes at a time, they seemed to be blissfully enjoying a breeze unavailable to the sweaty humans.

Another event, difficult in itself, also had tough operating conditions. Welcome to the year 500 AD, the year England was introduced to a powerful siege weapon: Enter the trebuchet, and welcome to “Storm the Castle”. A trebuchet (“TREB-you-shay“) is a combination of a sling and a catapult. In this event, students construct a trebuchet capable of throwing a ball and hitting targets, like miniature medieval castles. This mixture of pure mechanical application and aiming skill became oddly realistic. As in medieval times, we were cheering on our teams as they blasted targets. With the exceedingly muddy field, blistering sun, abused castles and (honest) the smell of horses, the only difference between this event and a similar one thousands of  years ago was everyone’s lack of a British accent.

There are many other events that took place in the open and behind closed doors, and the students competing in these have mental and physical energy I envy. After this very full day, when temperature and competitors were more relaxed, we attended the awards ceremony. Outside at the Juniata College football field, amid smells of tanning lotion and bug repellant, we sat in the bleachers and cheered as the students scores were announced. The Science Olympiad is a direct team-against-team competition, stressful and tense. But even still, I saw shared fun and respect between schools, with students joking and talking between teams. While I’m sure no trade secrets were shared, there was an obvious camaraderie of just being at the Olympiad. And despite wins or losses, tears or celebration, all students were unanimous about one thing: They gave the Science Olympiad event coordinator a long and heartfelt standing ovation. …It was all worth it.

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