May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

My First Science Olympiad Experience: A Primary Teacher’s Perspective Part 1

Posted: Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

by Michelle French

As a primary teacher, I had never thought about attending a Science Olympiad.  That changed when I had the opportunity to talk with Tulare County Office of Education’s Science Instructional Consultant, Jennifer Janzen.  When I asked Ms. Janzen about interesting science education opportunities in Tulare County, she informed me that on April 14, 2012, the Northern California State Science Olympiad would be held at College of the Sequoias (COS).  COS is the junior college in my hometown of Visalia, CA.  Additionally, Ms. Janzen said that the Tulare County Elementary Science Olympiad would be held at El Diamonte High School in Visalia on April 21.  I was excited to hear this news and made plans to attend both of the events. 

On the day of the Northern California State Science Olympiad, I arrived at COS around 1:30 in the afternoon.  I was immediately struck by the festive atmosphere around the campus.  Teams from around the state had set-up camp throughout the common areas.  Lawn chairs, ice chests, and brightly decorated signs denoted each team’s “turf.”  The music playing in the background added to the excitement of the day.

I was able to make contact with Laura Malmquist from the Tulare County Office of Education.  When I mentioned the festive atmosphere, Ms. Malmquist said that during the competitions participants were very focused.  She explained that the overall winning teams of the state events go on to compete at the national level.  At the national level, the competition is even more spirited, because full-ride scholarships to the university hosting the national Science Olympiad are made available to the students who win each event.

Ms. Malmquist then showed me a map and the jam-packed schedule of events.  As she reviewed the schedule, I was impressed with the number of events and the number of students participating in the competition.  There were approximately 735 students competing on 24 high school teams and 25 middle school teams.  I  headed out with map in hand and began my new experience.

I immediately went to one of the COS gyms to watch two events.  My plan was to stay there for a bit and head out to other events, but I became so enthralled that I never left.  The two events I had the pleasure of watching were Mission Possible and Gravity Vehicle.  I was blown away by the design and construction of all the participants’ entries.  After watching both competitions, I was able to meet with two students and a parent to get their opinions of the Science Olympiad experience.

The first participant I had the pleasure of meeting was Aaron Grisez from Clovis.  He and his partner Kareesa Kron are both sophomores from Buchanan High School in Clovis, CA.   Aaron’s mom, Denise Grisez, was there supporting them during the competition.  Aaron and Kareesa competed in the Gravity Vehicle event.  According to the National Science Olympiad website, the main objective of the Gravity Vehicle is that “All energy used to propel the vehicle comes from the gravitational potential energy derived from the mass of the vehicle and the vehicle starts from an elevated, non-horizontal position on a ramp.”  When I asked Aaron why he and his partner enjoyed this particular event, he stated, “We like physics.  This is the most physics-based event.  I prefer building events to testing events.”

As I continued to interview Aaron, it quickly became apparent that he was an exceptionally intelligent, thoughtful, and polite young man.  His interests are split between a nice balance of music and science.  He went on to say that “the Science Olympiad experience doesn’t exhaust me; it invigorates me.”  Aaron enjoys seeing what “like-minded” students around the state are doing.  He added that about 40-60 hours of work went into the preparation for their two events.   When I asked him about how preparation in his traditional science classroom helped him, he stated, “science isn’t something you can learn from a book; you have to do it.”  I also asked him what advice he would have for teachers who are interested in becoming coaches and forming Science Olympiad teams.  His response was, “Don’t let funding deter you.  Even if you can’t afford to attend a regional or state competition, you could have Olympiad types of events at your school.”  Aaron’s closing thought was “this is a challenge, not a fixed goal, and I want to reach as high as I can.”

Aaron’s mom, Denise Grisez, stated that there is a “great camaraderie” among all of the participants.  She has observed, over the last three years of her son’s participation, that participants have a “much greater enjoyment in the learning and application of science” by being involved in this process.

My next interview was with Kaitlin Prado a freshman at Bullard High School in Fresno.  She was competing on Baird Middle School’s team.  I started off by asking what inspired her to compete.  Kaitlin responded that the school she attended in 4th grade was “really big in science.”  She won an award at an elementary science fair that year.  Kaitlin competed in the Mission Possible event.  According to Kaitlin, the goal of this event is to design and build a Rube-Goldberg Device that would result in the raising of a flag after completing as many tasks as possible within the device.  Kaitlin said that her initial blueprints of her device looked very different from her finished product.  She went through a lot of trial and error before finalizing her device.

She stated that she built the device by herself as her grandfather supervised the construction in his garage.  I laughed when she told me, “I am not one of those kids who wants a parent to do it for me.”  How refreshing!  I also consider her outlook on her future refreshing.  Her potential career paths include following her interests in music and theater.  She is also interested in environmental science by becoming a hydrogeological specialist.  When I asked her how she blends her two loves of science and art, she said, “I really love science; it is an art.  There are so many creative things to do with science.  I have just as much fun with science as with a piano lesson.  I feel equally as creative.”

Kaitlin also wanted to send an encouraging word to teachers considering starting an Olympiad team.  She said, “The Science Olympiad gives a whole new outlook in science.  We are able to explore all branches of science.  I had an opportunity to work in physics as a middle-schooler, and most don’t get it until high school.”  She added, “We get to meet people with similar interests.”  My parting question to Kaitlin was regarding her thoughts about the likely decrease in California high school graduation requirements from two science classes to one.  “I don’t think that’s right.  Some students really don’t think about what they want to do in their lives.  Without the additional science class, we are closing a door to potential scientists.  We are closing a door that is vital to society.”

All I can add is “WOW!”  I am so thankful that someday these two intelligent young people will be making informed decisions for our county and planet.  In Part 2 of my article, coming out next month, I will explore the elementary level of the Science Olympiad experience.

Michelle French is a staff developer and classroom teacher at Wilson Elementary School and CSTA’s primary director.

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

One Response

  1. I stumbled on his post and I’m glad I did! I currently teach science at Los Tules and I have taken both Division A (Maple) and Division B (Los Tules) teams to Science Olympiad. I am hoping to get more participation from other schools in our district! There will be a districtwide informational meeting sometime at the end of September. More information to come soon!

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California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

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California Science Teachers Association

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.