I mentioned kids competing in science competitions. That is something I never did much of as a kid, and now I shepherd kids onto/off buses and I wait for winner announcements with my stomach all a-flutter. I am the official sponsor of science competitions at my school. I get paid extra for this!
What are these competitions?
Well, any kid at my school who wants to enter the local science fair needs my signature. Last year I had one! He got “best in show” at the local level, and won a prize at the regional fair but not enough of a prize to go on to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which is where the big money is. That was pretty exciting! This year, nobody entered. Maybe next year!
The Delaware Valley Science Council invites up to four seniors from every high school in the region to take two tests in the fall. The kids get to choose among biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics tests. I’m the one who sends in the nomination form and serves as the communications link between the organization and the students in my school. This year, my school had one student who, after taking the tests, was invited to the awards dinner. He won $250! Wow!
Science Olympiad is a national organization that encourages kids to get involved in science competitions. My school competes in a local region, spending a whole day at a local college where 15 kids per school compete at 23 different science-related events. These include engineering balsa wood bridges or towers or other structures, flying home-made airplanes in a gymnasium, controlling little robots to accomplish various tasks, taking tests in food science, infectious diseases, or ecology, identifying astronomical objects and different kinds of rocks, completing lab experiments in chemistry or physics, playing and explaining home-built musical instruments, answering Fermi questions, and a lot more! Our local region is home to teams who often make it to the national level, and win there, so the competition is very tough. We’ve made it to the state level once since I have been the sponsor, which is exciting, and involves an overnight trip. This year, my team showed great enthusiasm in the fall and then disappeared as the competition grew near. We did not do very well this year.
Since I teach physics, I also have a Physics Olympics team. This is not a national organization, though many states and regions have Physics Olympics competitions. My school is in a local league that has three meets each year. The meets are on Saturday mornings, and they all have the same types of events: build-ahead events, worth up to 200 points; rotation events, worth up to 100 points, and problem solving. The build-ahead events involve making things ahead of time and then racing or testing or otherwise proving them at the meet, going head-to-to head against the other teams. The rotation events involve 8-12 kids from a team going into a room for 25 minutes to complete a task: a mystery lab, a build-something-out-of-something-else challenge, or maybe a pencil-and-paper activity. The problem solving portion is pretty challenging. The various teachers who make up the problems make up some doozies! My kids are still talking about the “cheese train” problem from the December competition (which they got right!)
Our local Physics Olympics in February also serves as the regional qualifying event for the International Bridge Building Competition. Our top two bridge-building kids in the region go on to the International meet. Since the bridges get broken in the process of testing them, the winners have to build new bridges for the finals. I’ve never had a student make it to the finals in bridge building, though I have had teams win the physics relay, and earn medals in various car-building tasks over the years, such as the mousetrap-powered car that will go the straightest down a series of plywood “steps,” or the battery-powered car that wins the most tractor-pull contests against other schools’ cars. This year we also won a medal in a projectile-launching event!
The American Association of Physics Teachers sponsors some test competitions and a photo competition. I have had kids take the Physics Bowl test and the F=ma test. The F=ma test is the preliminary test for determining which kids will be chosen to represent the US at the International Physics Olympiad. This is the first year I have had a student make it to the final testing round! We should know within the next two weeks if he’s made it into the top 24, which is the cutoff for who gets invited to the Physics Team training camp. The top 5 at the training camp will form the “traveling team” and will compete in Vietnam against teams from around the world!
Happily, another teacher in my school guides kids to enter the High School Physics Photo Contest. A chemistry teacher takes care of the qualifying test for the Chemistry Olympiad team, and we have a district-wide FIRST Robotics team that is sponsored by a teacher at another high school. So I am not in charge of those things! I think I am in charge of enough science competitions. However, I could have registered an Envirothon team (but I missed the deadline) or a NOBBChE Quiz Bowl team, if I had talented minority students who wanted to compete (but none have asked me about it this year). One year I had some kids who wanted to enter the Team America Rocketry Challenge, but they never did build the rocket. There are probably other competitions out there, but I am not sure I want to know about them. If kids come and ask me about them and want to start up a team, then I will look into it. But I am not scouting for more opportunities right now, thank you!
Did you ever do any of this competition stuff in high school? Or did you get involved in something else? Some of my top science competitors are also in the school musical, on the Academic Competition team (another quiz-bowl sort of thing), on the debate team, part of the Model UN group, or busy with their own extra-curricular competitions such as piano-playing, or classical guitar. How do they have time for this stuff?