By Rachel Heston-Davis, Metro Independent Contributor
Early on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 15, fifteen students from Collinsville High School rose early, jumped in the car and headed off to an event they had practiced for all year. These students gave up their weekend sleep to compete with other schools for the chance to advance to the state tournament. No, they aren’t athletes; these students exercise the mind rather than the body. This is the CHS Science Club, and they spent last Saturday in fierce competition at the Regional Science Olympiad tournament at SIUE. They placed third overall, qualifying for the State Science Olympiad event in April.
The Science Olympiad program is a team-based competition for junior and senior high school students. Teams compete in a variety of events covering all areas of science, from biology to physics to chemistry and beyond. The events require students to take tests, build models, and conduct labs to prove their science know-how.
The Collinsville students were awarded medals in 13 individual categories, putting them in third place for the day and ensuring their place in the state tournament, to be hosted by the University of Illinois on April 12.
“We start preparing for this when school starts [in September],” CHS science teacher and Science Club sponsor Pat Szpila said. Szpila has brought the Science Club to this event every year since 2001, give or take a couple seasons. She stresses the strenuous prep work her kids undertake. Much of the content of the Regional Science Olympiad, such as test questions and lab challenges, remains a mystery until the big day. So students have to study, practice, and become very familiar with the 32-page National Science Olympiad manual, which details the rules and regulations for all areas of science covered at the tournament.
“This is our Bible,” says junior Ebby Ross with a laugh, pointing to the binder. Ross is enjoying her second year at regionals.
Her favorite station of the day, Experimental Design, illustrates what a typical science challenge might look like. Ross and two other teammates had to design and conduct their own lab, then write up a report for it, all in 50 minutes. The lab might be in any branch of science. “Today we measured the solubility of different substances,” Ross said with enthusiasm.
Senior Nicki Patel, president of the Science Club, favored the Designer Genes station, which was “a biology test on everything genetic.” Junior Lukas Moore got excited about the Elastic Launch Glider station, where students design a wooden or foam-based airplane and launch it with a rubber band.
“These kids are already interested in science,” says Tom Withee, CHS physics teacher and assistant coach. “This is another way for them to explore the aspects they’re interested in outside the classroom.” He said the Science Olympiad challenge also introduces students to new branches of science, not to mention the experience they gain on a university campus.
“They see facilities devoted to science and engineering,” he says, “[and they’re] getting to interact with faculty.” Most stations are judged by SIUE professors, who give the high school students their undivided attention and answer question.
Science Olympiad participation also looks good on a resume or college application. Withee estimates that 90 percent of Science Olympiad participants from CHS go on to pursue science-related majors at college.
That seems to hold true for this year’s team. Ross wants to be an orthodontist, and Patel a pediatrician. Her brother Aman Patel, a Science Olympiad alum from CHS, is in his first year of a biochemistry major at St. Louis University. Moore wants to major in computer science. Junior T.J. Tolliver is interested in mechanical engineering, and senior Sabrina Flohr plans to pursue a degree in biology or public health.
Students can even win full-ride scholarships to prestigious universities through the competition. Participants who win top awards at the National Science Olympiad get a full-ride scholarship to the hosting school. Different universities host each year.
Exciting as that prospect is, Szpila and Withee are trying to concentrate on the prospect of the state tournament for now. There, the CHS team will go up against other winning Illinois teams.
That’s a pretty serious undertaking. But, Withee says, even in the midst of these serious pursuits, “They still have lots of fun.”