Fairfax High School students faced games that tested their mental abilities: Design, construct and test a rocket made out of a soda bottle; determine how to stop a disease outbreak; make a musical instrument and explain its acoustics.
Those were examples of events that some Fairfax scholastic athletes encountered at state and national Science Olympiads this spring. Students from Fairfax High School recently placed first in the Virginia Science Olympiad, a statewide competition aimed at testing their skills and knowledge in science, engineering and technology. After winning first place, the Fairfax High School team competed in the national competition at Juniata College in Pennsylvania on May 21 and 22.
Out of 23 events at the national Science Olympiad, the team placed in 17 events and received medals in 11.
"They really represented the state of Virginia and the City of Fairfax very well," said Cathy Williams, a team coach and chemistry teacher at Fairfax.
While students were pleased with their standing at the state level, they want to earn higher placements when they compete in next year's competition.
"Everyone on the team works really well with each other," said Priya Dandawate, a junior. "That really makes the team enjoyable. Also, all of us have a commitment to science."
THIS YEAR marks the third year that Fairfax High School has had a Science Olympiad team. Despite its newness, the Fairfax team also won first place at the state level last year.
The team — which consists mostly of sophomores, juniors and seniors and one freshman — met regularly throughout the year to work on projects and prepare for the competition. Some students started experimenting with building apparatus in September; some waited until April. Other students honed their knowledge of cell biology, genetics, forestry and fossils through practice tests and extra reading.
Whatever the method of warming up, students practiced and developed their learning muscles in order to place or win in all of the Olympiad's disciplines.
Priya began working on her project, to build a bottle rocket out of a soda bottle, last September with her teammate. They would shoot prototypes in the backyard, and one rocket got stuck on top of a neighbor's house, where it still is today.
"It was nighttime, so you hear this loud thud," Priya said.
Seniors Scott McClure and Greg Sweiter were assigned to storm the castle; they created an apparatus that would fire an object a designated number of feet. They tested objects of various mass and weight in Fairfax's classrooms, the gym and in their back yards. Their goal was to hit a target, but the distance and the weight of the object would not be known to them until the competition.
"We had one of the most accurate apparatus there," said Greg of the national Olympiad.
Other students spent extra time in the classroom or at home studying for tests. Junior Rami Maarouf, who was involved in three of the four Olympiad's lab events, saw Williams every day for four hours after school as the Olympiad date drew closer, and Sam Tennison said he took a lot of practice tests.
Junior Shane Anderson was involved in the robotics mission and experimental design events. He made his first robot ever for the competition.
"Just trying to figure out the exact dimensions and the properties of things was very difficult," Shane said.
AT NATIONALS, students spent the whole day competing: Their day started at 6 a.m. and ended at 2 a.m. They adopted makeshift headquarters — a coat closet with a copier machine inside. Fairfax graduates — former team members already in college — served as chaperones and ran back and forth throughout events to ensure that students got lunch.
The students' goal was to place consistently in all the events. They discovered that what mattered was the tie-breakers, which could make or break a standing.
"We've realized that in the end competition, you can't neglect one event," said team coach and physics teacher Kristin Hjelm.
At the end of nationals, at 2 a.m., the students who were still awake looked up at the stars. Someone pulled out an astronomy chart, and they spent the morning charting the stars, and laughing and bonding over their recent intense journey.
"It was really, really neat to be able to have that experience," Rami said.
Although the school year is coming to a close, the rising students look forward to prepping for next year's competition.
That would be on top of some of the other activities that they do, such as theater and Model UN.
The seniors who are leaving are attending West Point, Cornell, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia this fall.
"They're driven to be successful in a lot of things in their lives," Hjelm said.
The 2003-04 team members are Shane Anderson, Priya Dandawate, Christian Delgadillo, Amy Ghate (team captain), Lauren Guin, Matt Hanlon, Hans Kim, Joonam Lee (team captain), Rami Maarouf, Scott McClure, Phoung Nguyen, Greg Sweiter, Sam Tennison, Kevin Tram and Chris Treyz.