St. James headed to nationals of Science olympiad
by Laurie Ghigliotti
LENEXA — Excitement is running high at St. James Academy here. One of its teams won the state title at Wichita State University on April 3 and is preparing to go to nationals.
But team members won’t be lugging the usual sports equipment and gallons of Gatorade.
Instead, 24 students and their coach — physics and chemistry teacher Jeremy Way — will be heading to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in May for the Science Olympiad with mousetraps, pneumatic cylinders, balloons, and a crate full of creativity and a heavy dose of smarts.
Science Olympiad is described on its Web site as one of the premiere science competitions in the nation, with more than 5,700 teams from 48 states participating. Competitions are structured like a track meet, with team members competing in different events simultaneously.
Although the team expected to do well in the regional competition, winning the Kansas state title surprised and delighted Way, a Science Olympiad veteran.
“This is the first team in my 26 years competing and coaching with the Science Olympiad that has ever advanced to the national tournament,” said Way.
Helping with the point total was a first-place finish by Andrea and Brian Buechler in the Mousetrap Vehicle event. This involved creating a vehicle beforehand to bring to the tournament. The siblings, according to their coach, came up with a design so successful that he believes it should definitely place in the national tournament.
Another project that looks promising for nationals is the team’s entry for the Mission Possible event, which also placed first at the state competition. Mission Possible requires contestants to build a Rube Goldberg-type device that can do 10 things, the first and last of which are prescribed.
“The remaining eight tasks can be done in any order and in many different ways,” said lead designer Nick Meyer.
Other teams used motors and levers, but Meyer used pneumatic cylinders. Rube Goldberg devices are complicated by definition and are often used as team projects for university engineering classes. Meyer finds it difficult to explain in detail each step of the winning design.
“After a full explanation, I’m usually out of breath, and whoever I’m talking to is pretty glazed over,” Meyer said.
Several of the 23 events that comprise this year’s competition involve designing and building projects to bring to the competition. Others require students, working as a team and drawing on their knowledge, experience, creativity and communication skills, to complete the assigned task on the day of the competition. At the tournaments, students tackle events in fields such as astronomy, chemistry, ecology, engineering, biology and physics.
“The testing events teach them things that are significantly beyond the scope of their average science class,” said Way. “The lab events do the same, but also [teach them] to think on their feet — to pull out their knowledge to handle the problem at hand.”
“The construction event teaches them to try and try again,” Way continued, “learning to manipulate variables until they get it ‘just right,’ and also to think on their feet to repair or replace things that fall apart on the way to tournaments.”
In addition to academics, teamwork and problem solving on the fly, students take away an experience that will serve them in other areas of life.
“They learn valuable lessons about how the “real world” works: knowing that parameters must be met, but that things can and do change along the way,” said Way.
Due to the way the tournaments are structured, team members have to move beyond their comfort zones for the team to be truly competitive. Andrea Buechler, who with Nick Meyer and Max Grisnik captained the team, commented on the upside of the challenge being the opportunity to “be exposed to other areas of science I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Science Olympiad challenges students intellectually, but has another benefit.
“Science Olympiad gives students an opportunity to feel like a member of a team. It gives them the benefits of an athletic team in a different realm,” said Way.
Sophomore Rebecca Thornton has been competing in Science Olympiad since the sixth grade and calls her team “my high school family.”
While Way gives all the credit to the students for the team’s success, team members enthusiastically insisted that Way deserves much of the credit.
“He put more time in it than anyone else to make sure we can get our stuff done,” said Sean Clary, noting that Way makes himself available to team members after school.
Other students were quick to agree.
One thing is certain: This Science Olympiad team has found a recipe that holds the promise of success in competition and in life: hard work, inquisitive and creative minds, and a dedicated mentor.