Friday, May 28, 2010

Science Olympiad

"Sham-rock." "SHAM-ROCK." The call echoes around UNC Charlotte's gymnasium as our students yell for their school, a blur of green and purple rocking from side to side. It is the end of a long Science Olympiad day, and the judges are late with the results. So the students from the participating schools, restless in their seats, are passing the time any way they can.

Some of our parents have caught the spirit as well, and they are leading the students in a variety of cheers: "Give Me an 'S'" "We Will Rock You," and so on. We aren't expecting to top the winners' lists, but our spirit is hard to beat. It's a beautiful sight.

It has been a long road to the Science Olympiad competition. There are fifteen different events, and a school needs to field at least two competitors for each. Our students have been coming to weekly practices since January, trying out their hands at pasta and marshmallow towers, paper gliders and (most popular) soda-bottle rockets that soar into the air with a satisfying whoosh, leaving a trail of water behind.

Fielding a top-notch Science Olympiad team is a lot of work. Materials have to be chosen and purchased. Competitors need to get a grasp of basic scientific principles: of structure, of flight, of growth and decay. And they need to work through the classic scientific process – try, fail, improve, try, fail, improve, over and over.

As so often happens, we had few resources and fewer volunteers, and a lot of the time the kids were on their own. In some ways this wasn't bad – they got to tackle challenges themselves, in their own ways. But there were predictable drawbacks.

Using spray bottles to soak each other proved more entertaining than using them to mist terrariums. Overly enthusiastic testing took a toll on many gliders. Hurried, haphazard cleanups meant that materials tended to get misplaced. And the transition from experimenting to testing and improvement was difficult to make.

The kids were definitely learning some things. But what did it add up to? Hard to tell. It was all too easy to imagine a debacle, with dozens of perfect entries putting our improvisations to shame.

Happily, the final competition fell two weeks after UNC Charlotte's classes ended, and Peter was able to step in for some last-minute coaching and tests. Having an architect involved made a big difference for our pasta towers, which had to hold a weight of 15 kilos to qualify for competition.

* * *

When competition day finally arrives, it starts at a bleary-eyed 7:30 a.m. Despite the early hour, 28 of the 30 team members show up at the gym, all but two wearing their school t-shirts. Several bring family members, who lug cameras, lunches and books. There are 23 schools taking part, and the gym quickly fills with eager students clad in a rainbow of school T-shirts.

The kids learn one lesson fast. Big competitions, like the real Olympics, look exciting on television. But for the actual competitors, they're mostly waiting, waiting, waiting.

At the glider competition, a long line of jostling competitors clutches planes of all shapes, sizes anxiously awaiting their team's turn. The judges take a while to get into a smooth testing rhythm, and the line crawls. As the packed students grow restless, planes began to crack, requiring emergency pep talks and repairs.

The first few gliders stall and dive, landing only a few feet from the starting line. But then one boy launches a craft that shoots halfway across the gym, fast and smooth. Everyone applauds.

Watching the first entries, we relax a little. The entries are all over the map – some clearly better than ours, some not nearly as good. We will not be embarrassed. We will fit right in.

The day goes surprisingly smoothly. All the gliders fly, and so do the rockets. One of our pasta towers cracks beneath the test weight, but the other holds. Our kids get to all their events, more or less on time. Between events, they play games or explore. A couple of our chess club members settle in for a match, while other students run up and down the grassy hills outside the gym. Everyone loves the bathrooms, where the sinks spurt water in great streams. No one gets lost for long. Only one kid melts down.

When it comes time for the awards ceremony each school groups together, kids in the front and families in the back, chatting, cheering and watching volunteers arrange the trophies and the big piles of medals. As the wait drags on, we joke that the judges must be using the time-consuming SOLVE process with which Shamrock students approach their End of Grade tests (STUDY the problem; ORGANIZE the facts; LINE up a plan; VERIFY with action; EXAMINE your results).

Finally, though, the organizers come up to the podium to announce the winners. A couple of events into the presentations, we hear "Shamrock Gardens Elementary," and everyone erupts. Our bottle biome team has taken fourth place! The two competitors make their way to the front, and come back with their medals and big smiles. A little later, we hear our name again – eighth place in the glider competition! At the end of the day, we will take home three eighth-place medals – glider, pasta tower and mystery engineering, along with the bottle biome fourth.

For the adults, it was a satisfying day. Our kids got to do something they hadn't done before. For a first effort, for the level of organization we managed to pull together, our performance was entirely respectable. The teams that took home the lion's share of the medals, as well as the team trophies, were the county powerhouses – the schools with high-powered gifted programs and far greater percentages of well-off families. Tough competition for a small, working-class school. Just showing up was its own victory, and for us that was sweet.

But for a school like Shamrock, the meaning of victory raises a dilemma There are the miracles, so often chronicled in movies, where underdog teams bring together hard work, persistence and a touch of crazy genius to knock off bigger, wealthier schools. Beyond the silver screen, however, it doesn't happen often.

But how can you explain to kids that being at a small, low-income school puts them at a big disadvantage in events such as these? How can you tell them that it will always be an uphill battle, because other schools find it easier to raise money, buy equipment and recruit parent volunteers? How can you ask them to lower their expectations? Yet if they don't, and our team doesn't finish near the top, how can you keep them from feeling that they're just not as smart as the kids on the other teams?

So we have no choice but to work harder next year. We'll be better organized, and we'll search more diligently for volunteers. We want one of those top eight spots, where the school gets a trophy, and everyone a medal. We'll see . . .

The top-finishing teams in Mecklenburg County's 2010 Elementary Science Olympiad Competition were, in order, Barringer, Olde Providence, Villa Heights, Polo Ridge, Providence Spring, Hawk Ridge, Idlewild and Myers Park Traditional.

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