April 14, 2003

Science Olympiad highlights brightest high-schoolers

By Eric Rangus

At the 2003 Georgia Science Olympiad, hosted by Emory on Saturday, April 5, not a single baking-soda-and-vinegar-and-red-food-coloring volcano was in sight. There were, however, rubber-band-powered biplanes circling the WoodPEC gym, rockets flying skyward outside it, and laboratories filled with experiments designed by some of the brightest high school students in the state.

“I think this was our most successful year in terms of putting together 23 top-notch scientific competitions,” said chemistry lecturer Michael McCormick, the tournament director.

More than 400 students from 27 Georgia high schools competed in those 23 events, with each school bringing a team of 15 students plus alternates to campus for the event. The aggregate score from each school’s finish in each event determined the winner.

Individual events covered all of the natural sciences as well as engineering and communications. The olympiad included “device” events that required building something prior to or at the tournament, “skills” events, or “knowledge” events in various fields of science. While advance preparation was certainly an aspect of every part of the olympiad, much of the competition involved hands-on work, emphasizing problem solving and teamwork.

For instance in “Chemistry Lab,” competitors were judged on their work, but instead of being handed a prepackaged experiment to perform, they were given a broad theme—periodicity and kinetics—and asked to design and then conduct an experiment.

“It’s all about thinking on your feet and being able to solve problems,” said McCormick, who has been involved with the Science Olympiad since Emory began hosting it in 1997. Since its arrival, both the chemistry department and the Faculty Science Council have been its sponsors.

Competitions were held in several venues. The PE Center was home to “The Wright Stuff” rubber-band-powered airplane competition (one of the more visually exciting “device” competitions) and the “Boomilever,” in which wood constructions resembling oil derricks squared off in a battle of strength and leverage (to see which one could bear the most weight without snapping).

Outside the P.E. Center was the self-explanatory “Bottle Rocket” event, the only competition to be held outside. Other events were held in the Math & Science Center, Emerson Hall and Atwood Hall, and they covered a broad range of skills and knowledge in physics, chemistry, astronomy and many other disciplines.

“Write It/Do It” was a scientific writing event that involved one set of team members building a project, then writing a description of it. The project was then disassembled, and the written material given to a second set of teammates who then had to rebuild the original using the description as the only guideline.

McCormick compared the other olympiad events to a track meet. Each team had specialists in certain events and because the relative small size of each team required it, students had to compete in more than one event.

Parkview High (Lilburn) won the title, finishing first first in three events and second in three others. Meadowcreek (Norcross) finished second, followed by Campbell (Smyrna), Westminster (Atlanta), and defending champion McIntosh (Peachtree City) rounded out the top five. Parkview had finished second at last year’s tournament. The top two teams will represent Georgia at the national tournament at Ohio State University in Columbus on May 10.

Meadowcreek’s exuberant reaction to its second-place finish—which guaranteed the school a spot at nationals—was akin to winning the Super Bowl.

“It’s really great to see kids get excited about science,” said Sally Pete, program administrator in the Emory College Office of Research. Pete was one of the more than 100 volunteers who helped run the competition. They included Emory faculty members, students from the Atlanta and Oxford campuses, as well as several members of the community.

Science most certainly was central to each event, but the arts played a part as well. “The Sound of Music” was a scientific battle of the bands, with competitors building their own instruments. There was a written part as well—participants had to take a quiz on acoustics.

Like in most every other category, the competitors’ sophistication varied. Plastic pipe organs on wheels mixed with water-filled wine glasses; a wooden lyre covered with what appeared to be the hide of a pool table traded chords with a square six-string guitar made of a box.

Then there was a duo whose instruments of choice consisted of a pan flute made out of PVC pipe and duct tape and a one-string guitar (an E-string) constructed of a willow branch and a cake pan.

“Some people spend days building their instruments,” said the pan flute player, Russell Gottschalk, a senior at Decatur’s Lakeside High. “We took a couple hours.”
Gottschalk and his partner Daniel Soloway placed 14th in the event