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Maryland high school makes first trip to National Science Olympiad Tournament

Senior Joseph Ayoub, left and junior Aneesh Agrawal go over the insulator (small wooden box on right) for the Science Olympiad Thermodynamics event. (Photo: Peggy Mihelich/AAAS)

"Get excited, get happy, get pumped," senior Joseph Ayoub tells his Science Olympiad teammates during an afterschool study session at Maryland's Centennial High School in early May. "We are going to Florida! We are representing our school, our state, our community," Ayoub said.

Ayoub and his 14 teammates are gearing up for the National Science Olympiad Tournament in Orlando -- a science competition for middle school and high school students that plays out like an athletic track meet. In one day, they will go head-to-head with teams from across the U.S. in 23 events and 2 trial events that will test their knowledge and building skills in a wide array of scientific disciplines like genetics, earth science, chemistry, anatomy, physics, geology, mechanical engineering and mathematics.

This is Centennial's first trip to the tournament, and the team is filled with nervous anticipation. They are lead by their coach Jason Piluk, the school's biology teacher. Piluk started the program 4 years ago and has been steadily building the team each year with this goal in mind.

"The students came to me and wanted to start the club and needed a coach — I didn't even know what it [Science Olympiad] was," admits Piluk. Piluk serves as team advisor and helps with logistics, like travel to regional and state tournaments. The students, lead by officers (typically seniors), oversee fundraisers, develop and implement pre-season tests (a.k.a., \tryouts\"), mentor, analyze data and competition results, and maintain lines of communication between club members.

Students meet after school weekly and bi-weekly throughout the year for up to two hours a day. As competitions approach, meetings increase to two times a week and just prior to a competition students meet every day of the week.

The club has about 45 members, but only 15 are allowed to compete in Orlando, so Piluk has assembled a varsity team of mostly juniors and seniors -- nine boys and six girls.

Students compete in teams of 2-3 with each student competing in multiple events. For example, junior Seung Lee will be competing in 4 events.

"I am doing Thermodynamics, Chemistry Lab, Technical Problem Solving and Fermi Questions," said Lee as he tinkered with the insulator for the Thermodynamics event in Piluk's classroom. In this hands-on, inquiry-based event, teams must construct an insulated device ahead of time that is designed to retain heat. They also complete a written test on thermodynamic concepts, all within 50 minutes. Lee's insulator is a small wooden box lined with insulation with a beaker in the center of it. A thermometer placed in the beaker tracks the temperature. "We have to keep it as hot as possible and predict what temperature it will be at by the end of a certain amount of time," explains Lee.

Not far from where Lee is working on the insulator, junior Jacqueline Chen and senior Ge Zhang are pouring over The Sibley Guide to Trees. They are prepping for the Forestry event that requires identifying North American trees given their leaves and other parts. With the tournament just two weeks away they are in cram mode. "We've only competed in Maryland and Pennsylvania, so we've only had to know eastern trees but now that we are going to Nationals, we have to know all these western trees too," says Chen. Before joining the club Chen and Zhang both admit they didn't know much about trees, but that's all changed. "When I'm going home on the bus, bored and starring out the window, I'll see all these trees around and I'll be like 'I know that pine!'" Zhang said.

And that is one of the goals of Science Olympiad, to spark kids interest in science and encourage them to pursue STEM degrees.

Helicopters, robot arm and musical instruments

While most of the 23 events are written tests, there are a handful of model building challenges. Piluk and his students refer to them as "the builds." Among this year's "builds" — construct two different musical instruments of any type based on a 12-tone tempered scale, design and build the most efficient tower possible, built a robot arm that can pick up objects and move them into scoring positions.

In the Gravity Vehicle event, teams design, build and test a vehicle and ramp that uses gravitational potential energy as the vehicle's sole means of propulsion to reach a target point as quickly, as accurately and as close to the predicted time as possible.

The cost to build these models can put a dent in the club's budget, so they applied for and received grant money from Northrop Grumman  -- $300 each to build their robot arm and tower.

While the team holds fundraisers throughout the year to help finance the club, the money for travel to regional and invitational tournaments comes from the students' parents. "A trip to Philadelphia cost us $1500, Nationals will cost us around $9000," says Piluk. One of the difficult aspects of starting a Science Olympiad team, Piluk notes, is the money to compete. Luckily, the socio-economic makeup of his school's surrounding area allows for parents to absorb the travel costs. "If this wasn't the case, I'm not sure how we'd make it happen," he said.

Piluk and the team have high hopes for, Helicopters, another build event. For this one, students construct and test a free-flight rubber-powered helicopter (ahead of time) to achieve a maximum flight time.

In the hall outside Piluk's classroom, senior Ajith Varghese and junior Christopher Lo are winding up their helicopter for a test flight. The craft is made of balsa wood and Mylar. A tightly wound rubber band serves at the helicopter's engine.

"Three, two, one, go!" says Varghese as he releases the helicopter. The propellers whirl and it heads straight up to the ceiling where it hits but continues to spin, and spin.

"We put a lot of research into the rubber band that we use. A lot of people just use the rubber band that comes in the kit. But that doesn't give it enough time to unwind and it's also heavier," says Varghese.

At the beginning of the year it took Varghese and Lo 3 days to build one helicopter. They've now got the process down to one day. In addition to the rubber band, they've done a lot of fine-tuning to increase airtime — shaving down the wood in certain areas, and carefully placing the Mylar on so it is not stretched straight across and taught. "You actually need a lot of little bends and wrinkles to help increase lift," explains Varghese.

Their helicopter took first place at the Maryland state tournament.  "We hit around 2.5 minutes. We don't know the national record because they change the requirements from year-to-year. Plus people don't like posting it, they don't want other teams to know what they need to beat," says Lo. One thing they do know is the competition will be fierce. At the national level, Varghese says it's "hard core."

Centennial will have their work cut out for them in every event. These newbies will be going up against established teams with over a decade of experience, multiple coaches and "bench players" -- some schools bring up to 30 players, even though only 15 can compete. Most of these extra students are there to get seasoning for next year's tournament.

We are young, this is our first time, we've only competed against a dozen Maryland schools and some schools in Pennsylvania, albeit they are strong schools with Nationals experience -- and the Pennsylvania schools beat us pretty good, notes Piluk. 

Despite the odds and the pressure, Piluk thinks his team will do well — possibly even medal. And if they somehow manage a first place in any event, he's told them he'll do a back flip. "I'd like us to rank somewhere between 20-30 out of 60 teams," Piluk said.

But no matter how they do in Orlando, they go as winners --- Maryland's state champions.

Tournament day

It's a hot and sunny day in Orlando. Over 2000 students from 120 U.S. schools have fanned out across the University of Central Florida's campus to compete in this year's Science Olympiad tournament held May 18-19. In a gymnasium behind UCF's basketball arena, kids are making final adjustments to their "builds" before being called to compete. Floors are carefully wiped down for the gravity vehicles, rubber bands are wound for the helicopters and robot arms are tested one last time.

Watch highlights from the 2012 Science Olympiad Tournament in Orlando, Florida

The models are impressive: Double rotor helicopters with tails, robot arms worthy of a spot on a factory's assembly line, musical instruments shellacked to look like real cellos and violins.

The mood is serious but everyone seems to be having fun including the Centennial team. Coach Piluk has been getting word from the students as they finish each event. "The kids were coming back positive they weren't beat down, they felt optimistic. There were some things though like 'I didn't expect this or should have known that'" says Piluk.

It turns out the two students competing in the Rock and Minerals event got thrown a last-minute curve ball. "Unfortunately, all the samples ended up being shipped to the organizer's billing address and not UCF -- all the samples were back in Colorado. The test had to be modified to be just a paper version — no physical samples — that locked up the students a bit," explains Piluk.

All the teams in the Helicopters event had to grapple with the ceiling. Many of the crafts were getting stuck in the rafters, in such a case, time stops. "We chose a spot that didn't have a lot of cross sections, so it would stay on a flat area. Luckily it went to the place we wanted it to go," says Lo. Lo feels they did exceptionally well — "This was a personal best for us."

By 3 p.m. it's all over. The teams assemble in UCF's arena to hear the results. Medals are awarded in each event from 6th to 1st place. Trophies are handed out to the top 6 teams. Not surprisingly, the established schools dominate — Troy High School in California, Solon High School from Ohio, Grand Haven High School from Michigan.

"First place in Chemistry Lab, from Maryland, Centennial High School." The team erupts with roars and screams.

"I was shocked," Piluk said after the ceremony. "And then I thought, oh no, I have to do a back flip!"

The two students who competed were as surprised as their coach with their 1st place ranking. "At States we didn't place at all — whatsoever, like 8th place," says junior Aneesh Agrawal. "My partner and I, Seung Lee, we took the test. There were 5 stations and 50 questions....Most of the questions were pretty easy.... And we were expecting a lab, but the only physical thing we had to do was take a vial with some stuff already measured out and show how much mass it had."

And then, another surprise for Centennial -- 5th place in the Remote Sensing event. "Right after the test I wasn't really feeling that confident about it and I don't think Aneesh [her partner] was either," says junior Vivian Wang. "There were a lot of questions about specific sensors, very different from the state tests. And it was more specific information we needed to know."

After all the awards are given out, Piluk gets the team's final results. They end up in 29th place overall. "I'm really impressed with them all around," Piluk said.

Even though they didn't medal in Helicopters, Centennial finished strong, in 8th place. "They got the longest flight time of the 60 competitors that day -- 3.24 minutes. They didn't score the maximum points, they give more points for the Chinook double rotor systems. I told them, next year, we are going to build a three-rotor system," he said.

But events where they did well at Maryland's state tournament, they struggled at in Orlando: Gravity Vehicle, 49th place; Robot Arm, 48th place and Disease Detectives, 55th place. "Those numbers just killed us," says Piluk. He believes what might be going on is a bit of resistance by students to keep pushing to improve their builds. "They figure, it was good enough, let's not mess with it, but I think that backfired on us." Piluk also notes they didn't perform well in the biological events, and "I'm the biology teacher."

Setting the bar

Piluk's goal for next year is to keep the team focused, and recruit new students.

"I'm losing seven seniors from our varsity team. Out of the club I am probably losing 10-15 students. It's a big void, but every year that I've done this the new class of seniors steps up," he said.

Getting new kids interested in joining is always a challenge. Centennial High School has a lot of extracurricular activities vying for kids' attention. Piluk wants the best students but it doesn't always work out that way because the students make the choice.

But now, with the trip to Orlando, they have a big marketing tool to help with recruitment. And will they be able to repeat?

"It is hard for me to say how we'll do next year. I am hoping we come back strong, the new officers will step up, take control, the new members get excited and want to make it to Nationals... I'm confident we'll be competitive... Our odds are good but there are variables," said Piluk.

For now he's content to enjoy this year's successes, and celebrate with students and parents. Tomorrow they are taking advantage of being in Orlando by visiting a theme park -- Islands of Adventure (Universal Studios) where they will have the chance to share stories, unwind, and have some fun in the sun.

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Representative Image Caption
Senior Joseph Ayoub, left and junior Aneesh Agrawal go over the insulator (small wooden box on right) for the Science Olympiad Thermodynamics event. (Photo: Peggy Mihelich/AAAS)
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