June 22, 1998
Volume 50, No. 34
Georgia Science Olympiad finds new home at Emory while looking to expand its program
For 15 years, Science Olympiad has been turning kids across the country onto the wonders of science and engineering. Its founders now boast of more than 3 million K-12 students nationwide participating every year.
Milton Stombler would like to add to that number, and since coming to Emory from Georgia Tech in January, that's just what he's been trying to do. As the now full-time director of the Georgia Science Olympiad, Stombler hopes to bring the program not only to more middle schools and high schools in the state, but also to even younger children.
"If you're going to do anything in science education, you have to reach the children early," Stombler said. "When they're very young, they're naturally inquisitive and excited about science. As they move along the school progression, they get turned off."
Started in 1983, Science Olympiad has grown steadily into one of the most comprehensive academic competitions in the country. Unlike more traditional science fairs or quiz bowls, the program calls on teams of 15 students to work together to solve hands-on problems with a certain set of rules and materials. The 23 event categories involve all the sciences as well as engineering and communication. More importantly, all the events teach teamwork skills.
For example, students may be charged prior to the competition with building a balsa wood tower of certain dimensions; the rest is up to them. They then bring the tower to the competition, and whichever tower is most efficient in supporting weight relative to its own weight wins the gold medal.
"These students are good," Stombler said. "They come up with towers that weigh six or eight grams and can hold 20 kilograms. They are very clever. And it's these devices that appeal to students who may not be the science stars. They don't know the science or the engineering that goes into that [tower]-they just use trial and error. Yes, it appeals to your good science students, but it also appeals to students who in a million years you would never associate with academic competition."
Georgia currently holds five regional competitions each for middle schools and high schools and then one state tournament for each. Since 1994 the number of kids across the state who participate in Science Olympiad has nearly doubled. In 1998 Georgia sent two teams each of middle schoolers and high schoolers to the national tournament; the middle school teams placed first and fifth out of 54 teams nationwide, the high schoolers 17th and 24th.
But not long ago Georgia Science Olympiad was a program in decline. It was being run by a single professor at a small college, on top of a full teaching load. Stombler was working as director of program development in the College of Science at Georgia Tech, and he lobbied successfully for state funding for Science Olympiad. After that, the Georgia Academy of Science, the program's official sponsor, asked Stombler to take over as state director.
Still, Stombler was limited to working on Science Olympiad only about one-third time. Wanting to expand the program even more, he began pitching his idea to several colleges. Dennis Liotta, Emory vice president for research, and Provost Rebecca Chopp became enthusiastic about the University's involvement, and Stombler has been on campus since January.
"Both Provost Chopp and I felt very strongly that Emory must take a leadership position on the important educational issues that confront our society," Liotta said. "Supporting the Georgia Science Olympiad represents one of the ways that Emory intends to partner with teachers and with the local community to improve the educational system in our state and in our nation."
Besides bringing Science Olympiad into elementary schools, Stombler hopes to garner more corporate support to augment the state money he receives. Costs quickly add up when transporting 15-person teams to national tournaments, not to mention the coaches, parents and equipment that must also go along. And Stombler would like to get school systems to provide some form of compensation to the teachers who serve as coaches. But even without pay, he has found many are eager to participate when they see the effect Science Olympiad has on kids.
"Teachers spend a lot of extra time, and they don't get compensation like a football coach or a basketball coach," Stombler said. "Oh, they might get a couple hundred dollars for putting in hundreds of hours of work, but if you can convince the teachers that it's really good for their students, they'll work for nothing. A good teacher will do that."