Over 1,800 students, parents and educators welcomed to campus for state science competition

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Students conduct an experiment at the Indiana State Science Olympiad on March 18. Photo courtesy of the IU Office of Science Outreach

Indiana University recently welcomed over 1,800 middle school and high school students from 74 schools across the state to compete in the 2017 Indiana State Science Olympiad, a competitive tournament covering areas of science as diverse as anatomy and physiology to hovercraft engineering.

IU has hosted the tournament for over 25 years, and many volunteers are IU faculty and staff. This year's event was IU Department of Physics research scientist James Sluka's sixth time volunteering as an event supervisor for the robotics competition.

"The hands-on nature of the competition gives the students a better feel for what STEM projects typically involve," said Sluka. "The students get away from book and classroom-based learning and get a chance to apply what they've learned and to brainstorm solutions to a physical problem. The overall process gives the students hands-on experience in working through a challenge from start to finish."

In the robotics competition, students worked on a challenge that required moving and flipping pennies onto a target, using robots that range from modified commercial machines to those that were built from scratch.

Matthew Shepherd, a professor in the IU Bloomington Department of Physics, also volunteered at the event. He helped to run the "Wind Power" competition, in which students were tested on their written knowledge of wind power and required to create a wind turbine by designing blades that attach to a CD. 

"This is a fun competition to observe because no two student-built wind turbines look the same," said Shepherd. "It is often hard to guess, just by looking, which ones will perform the best."

The purpose of the National Science Olympiad is to connect mentors and science professionals to students to allow them to grow in their scientific and problem-solving skills prior to exercising them in an undergraduate education setting.

"For better or worse, it also exposes students to the thrill of victory and agony of defeat that is present in any research environment," Shepherd added. "Successful professional scientists have papers rejected by journals, grant proposals denied, and peers that come up with more clever ideas for constructing particular experiments."

Regarding the variety of events and experiences for young students, Bloomington High School South teacher and Science Olympiad coach Cindy Kvale talked about the "taste of undergraduate-level sciences" her students got to experience -- as well as the skills the event helped them to build.

"Students develop leadership, teamwork and study skills that will serve them well the rest of their lives," said Kvale. "It also connects them with professional scientists as role models."

Bloomington High School South finished second overall in the competition with 13 medals from 23 events. Bloomington High School North medaled in 11 events. The winning teams were Munster High School in the high school division and Jefferson Middle School of Valparaiso In the middle school the division. The winners are guaranteed a spot representing Indiana in the national competition. Bloomington High School South may also get a chance to compete in nationals.

"Hosting the Indiana Science Olympiad Tournament gives IU Bloomington an opportunity to share the richness of the scientific endeavor with middle and high school students," said Teddie Phillipson-Mower, associate director of IU's Office of Science Outreach. "It is sheer grit that the students bring to the competition -- through the practice of critical thinking skills, content acuity and a healthy dose of motivation.

"We're also grateful to our many expert volunteers from IU faculty, students and staff who step up to develop challenging and rigorous events that allow the students to showcase their ability," she added. "It was a great day."

The national tournament with representatives from Indiana will be held May 19 and 20 at Wright State University in Ohio.