September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

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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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. Learn More…

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.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

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.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.