Science Olympiad


(This 823nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 7, 2007.)


Is there anyone out there who does not believe that we have an overemphasis on sports in this country?


Witness in this regard the staffing of this newspaper: as near as I can tell there are about 457 reporters assigned to sports while there are none assigned to science. And visit your local high school. The foyer will be strewn with silver cups and multi-colored flags representing sports championships. There will also be a schedule for the upcoming contests and the sports award banquet. Look for similar recognition of academic achievement. Sorry, Charlie.


Of course, those institutions reflect our society. (You would hope that they would try to lead that society, but that is apparently too much to expect.)


Rather than simply whining about this imbalance (as I am here) some deeply committed science teachers have come to understand the motives that make sports so attractive -- competition and teamwork -- and are applying them to their own important field.


As a fine example, local high school science teachers and other concerned scientists, led by Kate Toy of Clarence High School, have organized to mount a regional science competition that is part of a national contest called Science Olympiads. This year's 23rd annual event will be held at Clarence High School on February 10.


A similar contest among middle schools is led by Jason Mayle. His competition will be at Buffalo's McKinley High School on March 3.


Science Olympiads incorporate both competition and teamwork in their activities. By mid-December, 24 teams had enrolled for the high school contest and three -- Amherst, Lakeshore and Williamsville North -- entered two teams each.


Teams compete in a wide range of science events. Event titles are: Astronomy, Boomilever, Chemistry Lab, Circuit Lab, Designer Genes, Disease Detective, Ecology, Entomology, Experimental Design, Fermi Questions, Five Star Science, Food Science, Forensics, Health Science, Oceanography, Physics Lab, Remote Sensing, Robot Ramble, Rocks and Minerals, Scrambler, Sounds of Music, Wright Stuff, and Write It Do It.


Few of those titles convey much about individual events so a "Coaches Manual and Rules" that carefully defines each is provided for participating schools. Here are a few of my favorites.


Boomilever. Under strict regulations contestants construct a cantilevered structure prior to the meet. There it is tested to see how much weight it can support.


Fermi Questions. Italian-American nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi was legendary for figuring out things in his head very rapidly, using information that seems too meager for quantification. In his honor so-called Fermi questions ask for estimates in less serious settings. Here is one: How many ping pong balls would fill a Boeing 747?


Answering that question requires estimates of the size of a ping pong ball and the volume of the interior of the airplane as well as an arithmetic calculation. Even without further information, however, the answer may be obtained within a reasonable range.


Scrambler. Contestants design and build a device which uses energy from a falling mass to move a fresh egg along a straight track, stopping as close to a barrier as possible without breaking the egg. Other limitations apply and the barrier distance is not announced prior to the meet.


Wright Stuff. This model airplane competition requires not only construction of a rubber band driven, lightweight airplane but also testing prior to the tournament. Olympiad scoring is based on the length of time the airplane can remain airborne in the school gym.


Write It Do It. One team member is shown an object built from simple materials like straws, paper cups and Popsicle sticks and given 25 minutes to write a description of the object and how to build it with no diagrams allowed. A partner is then given 20 minutes to use the description and appropriate materials to recreate the original object.


Area industries and schools support costs of the local contest and expenses for winning teams that go on to compete at state and national levels. A few clear-sighted school boards also support their Olympiad coaches just as they do athletic coaches.


Two questions for readers: Does your school participate? Is your company supporting this and similar important educational initiatives?


Meanwhile, I salute Mrs. Toy and Mr. Mayle for their leadership.-- Gerry Rising