Alex Kaplan, a student at Lake Braddock Middle School, needed to know whether his design should be classified as a wheel or a Class Three lever. “It’s spinning on an axle,” he explained to Tim Harazin, elementary science specialist with Fairfax County Public Schools, in a bid to have it classified as a wheel.
“My initial thought is that would be a lever,” said Harazin. However, this was not the answer Kaplan needed. He went into further detail, explaining that although his device moved a load as if it were a lever, it did so with a wheel that spun.
“I’m going to have to think about that,” said Harazin, trying to picture the device in all its subtle detail.
“Everyone I’ve asked has no clue,” said a frustrated Kaplan as he rushed off down the hall, desperate to do the last fine-tuning before his machine, whether wheel or lever, would be judged.
Scenes like this occurred throughout the halls of Carl Sandburg Middle School Saturday, April 22 at the fifth annual Northern Virginia Middle School Science Olympiad. Students from 14 schools competed in 11 events at the Olympiad. The winning team, from Longfellow Middle School, will advance automatically to the national Olympiad, because this is the state’s only tournament.
In room 120, Roman Enson and Andrew Lam of Rocky Run sat on the floor, competing in the “Sounds of Music” competition. Enson sat behind a wooden frame with 17 pipes of varying lengths hanging from it. Lam had a homemade bass guitar on his lap.
“We hit the note. The pipe vibrates to make the air vibrate to make the sound. The longer the pipe, the lower the sound because it will vibrate slower,” Enson told judges Marty Romeo, a high school physics teacher, and Katrina Davillis, who teaches middle school music.
Olympiad contestants must not only be able to create a science experiment, they must be able to explain why it works and the principles behind it. Lam explained how he created his bass guitar with a peanut can for a sound box, and pinewood sound and fingerboards. He used drilled bolts and wing nuts to tune the cello strings he mounted to the guitar. The two played several duets on their instruments, then took a written test.
Davillis said that most of the contestants in this event play in band or orchestra. “But they know a lot about physics; otherwise they wouldn’t be able to build these instruments,” she said.
Romeo said he had been particularly impressed with a slide trombone one student had made out of PCV pipe. “He called it the bazooka,” he said.
“And he played it very well,” added Davilis.
MATHIEU TRIPOLI, who had participated in Science Olympiad 12 years before, volunteered to be an Olympiad judge after his college genetics professor encouraged him.
“I got into the team by accident. I had a couple of ideas I submitted,” he said. “It was a nice feeling being part of science. It brings [out] the fun part of it, doing it not just for the big paying job. You love what could happen after you’ve discovered something.” Tripoli is now a student at Marymount University studying criminal justice with a focus in forensics, a major that exemplifies the meeting point of scientific theory and practical application that the Science Olympiad stresses.
David Venezky, a volunteer at Carl Sandburg, has been coaching the Science Olympiad team for four years. He has a Ph.D. in chemistry and this year coached teams competing in “Can’t Judge a Powder by its Color” and “Food Science.” He said the competition gives students an edge in chemistry when they get to high school.
“I try to teach them chemistry that I would teach at university,” he said.
Kyle Margenau, Carl Sandburg’s eighth grade science teacher, agreed. “It gives them a chance [to do] somewhat real world applications of things they’ve done in class,” said Margenau. “They ’re he re to have fun. They’re learning. They’re competing. It’s not life or death.”
“For some of the coaches it’s life or death,” adds David Dale, whose son is competing in the wheeled vehicle competition.
MARGENAU SAID he has focused most of his efforts on “Storming the Castle” in which students have to build miniature trebuchet catapults that hurl a small beanbag various distances. His reason for choosing this event mirrors that of most of the contestants, he said: “For me it’s the most interesting.”
The bleachers in the gymnasium were packed with spectators for “Storming the Castle.” They watch as each team carefully places a Styrofoam cooler on the polished floor of the basketball court. They placed the “castle” anywhere between a few feet from their machines to the far side of the gym. Some of the trebuchets were as simple as a weighted arm that rotates on an axle, but many incorporated systems of carefully calibrated rails and what appeared to be rollerblade wheels to give the arm extra momentum. Before the action took place, Margenau explained, students must be able to explain to judges how their trebuchet works and must produce graphs that estimate various trajectories. Margenau said that this is just as intrinsic to the scientific process as the ultimate impact point of each beanbag projectile.
“You may be the best scientist in the world, but if you can’t explain [your work] to someone else, you’ll never be successful,” he said.
This is a spectator sport. Contestants in the stands excitedly evaluated their opponents’ trajectories and the speed of rival machines’ throwing arms. When Alan Nguyen and Bruk Dinbern of Glasgow Middle School did not get any applause from fans of rival schools, Nguyen threw up his arms and called out to a teacher in the stands for support. Soon the air in the gym was a vibrating mass of anticipatory applause as Nguyen and Dinbern knelt by their trebuchet, making the final adjustments, then stepped back to pull the trigger. The arm whirled up and whipped the beanbag into a 30-foot flight. Most importantly, it skidded to within a few feet of the castle. Nguyen said they had been working on the trebuchet for about six months. When asked whether they had an interest in physics, Nguyen paused, smiled and said, “We had an interest in weapons of mass destruction.”
“It’s nice to have a couple hundred people standing here and cheering for science,” said Jack Greene, a judge. Before Harazin took over, Greene coordinated the Science Olympiad for 15 years. “A lot of the events need engineering skills in applied sciences and mathematics,” he said. The Science Olympiad “really exemplifies how engineers and scientists work.” But students who do well in science class are not the only contestants who succeed at the Olympiad, which rewards interest in, and patience for, endless building and tinkering just as much as mastery of theory. “Students that aren’t so successful in school can learn they have an aptitude” for applied science, Green said.
IN ROOM 115, Seth Wynn and Yubee Kim of Walt Whitman Middle School had their goggles on, perfecting the balance of a complex machine housed in a wooden box. This is “Mission Possible.” The goal was to build a machine that is triggered by the drop of a tennis ball and after using several mandatory elements, including class two and class three levers, will pull down a roll of toilet paper to a specified number of centimeters. Bonus points are awarded for the length of time the machine takes to perform its task. Wynn admitted to being only “sort of interested in science,” saying “I wanted to do it because my friends were in it and it sounded like fun.”
Kim said that he received his best grades in science, but building the machine had taught him that physics is “not as simple as it sounds.” The boys said that they had added a trapdoor, a balloon, and a mousetrap to their machine in addition to the mandatory elements. “Really, when you think about it, a trapdoor, a mousetrap and a balloon popping are all pretty exciting,” Wynn explained. “More fun than levers.”
“Plus the sound effects are pretty cool,” added Kim.
“Mousetrap: snap. Balloon: pop,” said Wynn.
When it came time to run their machine before the judges, the trap snapped and the balloon popped, but the elapsed time was only 3.41 seconds, and several inches of extra toilet paper were pulled out. Wynn and Kim did not seem disappointed, however, even when they learned their score had to be deducted 200 points, from 370 to 170, because they had failed to include one of the required levers. There was no second-guessing the decision to sacrifice a shot at victory for cool sound effects. Science Olympiad was still more fun than science class. “A lot more fun,” said Kim.