Before this last year, I only had the vaguest notion about the kinds of scientific competitions that happen for school age kids around the country. This year, I got quite an education.
In particular, my son, whom we have homeschooled the last two years, joined a Middle School aged Science Olympiad team this last fall. We have been homeschooling because of particular educational needs that my son had, both in being able to self-pace his work (some things he could do very fast, and others veeeery slooow), and in terms of being able to focus on things he really needed to have ready for high school. Science is one thing that can be quite challenging at home, since outside of kitchen science, you rarely have safe lab space or equipment. So, when we learned about this team, it seemed like another way to make sure my son got exposure to a lot of scientific knowledge and concepts.
Somewhat ironically, and at variance from the stereotype, this was a seriously Christian homeschooling team, lead and taught by folks from the local Mennonite Church (where the meetings were held). We were and had always been quite secular in our approach and certainly were not homeschooling for any kind of religious purpose. So, there goes my highly smart, highly skeptical, secular positivist agnostic kid into study and preparation for competition in the Science Olympiad with a diverse group of very religious Christian kids (though not just Mennonite, but from several denominations). It was certainly going to give him lots of experience and knowledge, and not just about science.
The group, Pilgrimage Homeschool, was only together for its second year. It had competed in the state of Maryland the year before and done respectably well, but there were big schools from well to do communities which had built track records in the competition. I had no expectations except that we would participate in the regional competition, and might go on to state (because nearly everyone in our small state with only 40 teams does).
It was, however, going to be a surprising year.
A few words about the structure of the Olympiad. In most states, they compete in 23 events. Each event takes a small group (2-3 students) for the competition. The concepts behind the events might be biology, forensics or thermodynamics, and the events themselves usually have clever names like "Keep the Heat" or "Disease Detective." Some events require building devices ahead of time, some require knowledge for a test, some require preparations to do a lab, and some require some combination of all three. These events are really challenging, and I have to say I was completely impressed with the kids who competed, and with the teachers, coaches, parents, and volunteers who very generously gave of their time to prepare the kids for the competition. Every team that manages to get to a competition stands on a bedrock of people who are helping and pushing the kids to achieve.
My son started with three events. Often this can change as schedules and the needs of the team shift, and so it was for us. But going into the Central Maryland regional competition, he had prepared for one lab/building event ("Keep the Heat"); one pure building event, based on simple machines ("Mission Possible"), and one knowledge event ("Forestry"). For two events he had a partner, and for one he was part of a group of three. No one achieves things alone in the competition, you always are depending on your team mates, which provides a pretty good model for research science and engineering it seems to me.
So, about February we head to the regional competition, held at the University of Maryland in College Park. We spent a whole Saturday there, and I nervously escorted him from event to event. Some things went better than others. In Keep the Heat, a ruling on the device he and his partner made knocked them out of contention (later it was reversed, but not such that they placed). The ruling came before they started doing the lab and 50 question thermodynamics test and I think they were both upset and did not do as well as they could. Forestry seemed to go well, but he and his partner had a little difficulty working together optimally. Finally, Mission Possible just did not work the way we had hoped (curse you Rube Goldberg!) and so, I thought that was pretty much it. What a great opportunity and learning experience. Now we can wind down.
Well, then there was the awards ceremony. Pilgrimage was winning a lot of medals. My son and his partner won a third place for Forestry. The other kids had done really well. Also, the way the points are counted, every finish is totaled, so that the places add up to a score (e.g. 23 first places would be a score of 23; 23 third places would be a score of 69, etc.). Unexpectedly, our little homeschool group beat the Central Maryland Division powerhouse, North Bethesda Middle School. We were division champions, and suddenly there were expectations on our state competition, where we would face North Bethesda as well as other past state champion schools (North Bethesda had gone to nationals in 2010 and 2011).
The coach rebalanced the team and took Ian off of Forestry and contemplated moving him off Keep the Heat. We had some tense moments. I won't say that this level of competition always allows for pleasant interactions, and sometimes interests, intentions, and perceptions add up to a toxic mix. We all got through it, because it is about the kids and trying to do what is right not just for the individuals, but for the team as a whole. In the end, Ian competed Keep the Heat and Mission Possible at State. Despite the challenge, what happened next has to be credited to the teaching and coaching that had been given tirelessly and voluntarily all year.
We went to state at the end of March, and those kids competed their hearts out. Ian's two events with his groups went very well. We had a heady expectation of winning some medals. We competed on the Baltimore campus of Johns Hopkins University. It was a nice day, and the energy was very positive.
Of course we knew in the back of our heads that the two teams from North Bethesda who had competed at Regionals had been combined, so that the best students from both teams were competing for State. They had the experience and a lot of talent. We wanted to make a respectable showing and keep Pilgrimage growing.
At the awards ceremony, we did indeed do well. Ian and his partner received a first place for Keep the Heat, and his group received a second place for Mission Possible. I thought those were great validations and what a wonderful way to end the season. While we garnered medals, North Bethesda clearly had more first places than us. However, for final scores, it all depends on how well you do overall. One disastrous finish in an event can seriously damage your ability to win.
In the end, it came down to one point. One point between us and the powerhouse of Maryland.
And we won.
And that was kind of a "oh no" moment for us in many ways. We had not really ever expected to become Maryland State Champions.
And now we were.
We had to carry the program for Maryland forward, we had to represent and do our best. And we had to get us and our stuff to the national competition.
We had no sponsorships (hadn't considered them), no plan, no organization and no experience to do any of this.
And yet, in six weeks, we pulled it off again. Some people flew and carried precious equipment with them. Others generously drove and carried big machines and devices packed between the luggage.
A generous anonymous donor provided enough money for the kids to have team shirts so that they could appear in uniform during the opening ceremonies and on competition day. A state senator provided us with a flag. Our team created a beautiful banner, hand sewed and embroidered by some of the young women of the team.
Also, we had to prepare an extra event. Often the Olympiad will announce a "pilot" event that it is testing. It does not count in the main competition, but it is scored and medals are awarded. Some teams skip it (15 middle school teams did so this year), but we added a new team member and she took the lead in competing in Egg Drop Helicopter.
And, so it was, just a week ago my son and I flew down to Orlando, Florida. The competition was to be held at University of Central Florida. My parents generously helped us defray the costs, and my father met us in Orlando to help participate and observe. It was hot and sticky when we arrived, and prone to raining buckets at the drop of a hat too.
But we had made it.
Nationals, of the 28th Science Olympiad; I could not have been prouder.
Friday was opening ceremony day. In the arena, they had the teams in sections. Parents and other observers had to organize their own seating in the non-assigned seats. My dad and I managed to snag a whole row for our team parents. The ceremonies were somewhere between a rock show (lights, VERY LOUD MUSIC, videos, etc.), an advertisement of UCF (hey, after all, they were providing all the facilities and had a captive audience), and a graduation ceremony with lots of inspiring speeches (particularly from sponsor Progress Energy (who had to sub their speaker in at the last minute, and he was really good); the Director of the Kennedy Space Center; and Dr. G (Jan C. Garavaglia), the Chief Medical Examiner for Orange-Osceola (who has her own show on medical forensics on Discovery Health)). Some of it was sublime, some a bit silly. Some of our more conservative parents were offended by some content which I had not even thought about.
Nonetheless, a couple things really stood out, besides the motivational speeches. First, when our kids came down the aisle carrying our state flag and the big banner some of our kids had made with their own hands, it was pretty special. Next, the Olympiad, which competes both Middle School and High School teams, had an "Ambassador" high school team from Japan. Now, when all the other teams had marched in, the people of that school or that state cheered enthusiastically (we sure did) and others would applaud politely or sit quietly. However, for the guest team, the entire arena erupted in enthusiastic cheers and applause of welcome. Further, after the team representative bowed, the students from all the state teams spontaneously stood to give a standing ovation, and this brought the entire arena to its feet. As the Japanese students walked down the aisle, the students on the end of the chair rows gave them enthusiastic high fives.
I felt proud then, not just of my child, or my child's team or state. I felt proud of the children of the United States. Somehow, despite all that goes wrong, these kids were coming up all right. I felt a deep and profound hope for the future in that moment. It was a good moment.
So, even though then it would have been best to get the kids to bed and prepared for the next day's competition, instead they had a "swap meet." Each child had been encouraged to bring at least ten things to trade, hopefully something from the home state. This was to be fun, to get kids circulating and at least seeing the other middle and high school kids, and maybe having some exchange between the various state teams.
It started as TOTAL BEDLAM.
I mean, 2000 kids suddenly released and sent into the corridor that rings the arena to try and find trading areas, and another several thousand parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, et al, just trying to find a quiet spot and not be run over. My first thoughts were "this is a disaster!"
Concerned for my child, I looked for him in the crowd.
I was not prepared for what I saw.
There was my son, wearing a pink plastic fedora (where he got that, I will never know) and bargaining like a fishwife. He had 11 Maryland themed magnets, and he quickly parlayed them into any number of wonderful things like license plates, state pins, pencils, gum, Doctor Who notepads, etc. He started at the team table, and then suddenly took off and circled to all the other tables, around and around and doubling back. Everywhere he was trading (soon the pink hat was gone (at least I have pictures)), and he would have traded ALL NIGHT LONG. He was not like the kids trying to get a stack of pins, or license plates, or hats. He was in it for the DEAL. If he could not get one person to trade, he found another person, traded with them, and went back to the first person and made the trade. I only saw him hit one wall. He could not talk this one girl out of her hat, as much as he tried.
Still, my wife and I are considering putting in charge of our retirement account, because, hey, how could we do worse than what has happened in the last few years?
In any case, pumped up and wide awake, my dad and I took my son back to the hotel and tried to get him settled in, because we were going to have a very early rise, and he was competing in one of the earliest time slots.
Morning was not fun. He complained of not sleeping a wink (in that plaintive voice that only a boy with his voice changing can achieve). He got not sympathy, but tough love. Up, into the shower, GET DRESSED!
Once he got moving, it was all okay. He had three donuts at breakfast.
We delivered one of the competition devices to "impound" and then checked in at the team room. Then, from there, it was to the Keep the Heat competition. My dad and I dropped him, they closed him and his partner in the room with the other teams in that time slot, and off we went for an hour.
One fun fact: I saw a high school kid out on campus with a red fez made of duct tape. Some of you will be impressed. I got a photo of that too.
After an hour, we picked up my son. Things seemed to have gone well. We had to take equipment back to the team room and pack it up. We had to make phone calls. We had to have lunch (one thing Science Olympiad and UCF did not do well (among many things they did well) was organize and price the box lunches; total waste). We also got to see some of the competitions (Bottle Rocket, Egg Drop Helicopter). Everywhere we went, we met nice people. Nice kids, nice coaches, nice parents. I am not an extrovert at all. I am rather socially shy. I can go to a function and not talk to anybody, and that is sometimes just fine with me. All this to say, I could have met a lot more people and liked them, because as far as I could tell, there just was a great positive energy over the whole competition. Just a lot of great kids and lovely, smart, dedicated people. At least, that is what I saw.
Then, finally, it was off to Mission Possible. The competition was a little rocky for us, and we definitely came in as a lightweight, whereas others had trained for this as a heavyweight division. Still, we did not embarrass ourselves and the device, with some prompting (under the rules) completed its task.
We were done. All over but the crying, as they say.
So, we got cleaned up off campus and then came back for dinner and the award ceremony.
Though Science Olympiad has been around for almost three decades, it is still a growing program, and there are radically different levels of participation in different states, as well as different links between school’s curriculums and the competition. The states that field the most state teams get to send two teams to the national competition. States with less participation only send one. For the last four years, there have been 60 teams that compete at the national level, from the 50 states (Washington, DC has not sent a team recently and is still growing into participating). In 2009, the Maryland team that went to nationals placed 60th out of 60 teams. In 2010, Maryland placed 51st out of 60. Last year, in 2011, the first year our homeschooling group participated at the state level, the Maryland team (not ours, a team from North Bethesda Middle School that went to nationals (also the 2010 MD State Champs) placed 36th out of 60. Their highest place event was 3rd, and their lowest was 58th, with a score of 749. They placed twice in the top 10 (a 3rd and 6th place) and four in the top 20 (a 15th and a 19th in addition to the two top ten scores).
With that history, here is how the Maryland State Team did and how my son figured into it. We had a team of 15 middle school students with an alternate who participated in the optional extra event which not all states competed and which did not count in the final score. We placed 38th overall in the nation out of the 60 teams. Our highest placed event was 2nd (Awesome Aquifer) and our lowest was 59th (Meteorology). Our total score was 765. We had two top 10 finishes (2nd and 8th) and seven top 20 finishes (an 11th, two 12ths, a 13th and 18th as well as the two top ten). Also, in the optional event (Egg Drop Helicopter), we placed 15th out of a field of 45. I was incredibly impressed with the team, which is overall quite young and probably has a great future in the competition.
So this was my son's first and last year with the team. He will be going into high school at a public magnet next year. His two events dealt with thermodynamics and engineering called Keep the Heat and with simple machines and physics (through the medium of building a Rube Goldberg device) called Mission Possible. All the events were small group events, so he did nothing alone. For Keep the Heat he had one partner and for Mission Possible he had two.
In Mission Possible, the team finished 43rd out of 60 teams. The always twitchy set of machines did not work quite as planned, but it did complete it’s task, and everyone I met from different states constantly talked about how hard an event it is. We got outclassed, but, the kids did great.
In Keep the Heat, which requires two things: first, designing and building a box that will insulate a beaker of water, then mapping its properties so you can predict how the device will work under certain conditions, and second, taking a high level test on thermodynamics, Ian and his partner scored 8th place out of 60 teams. Let’s just say that I could not be prouder. He and his partner worked incredibly hard and probably know more about thermodynamics than most college graduates. While they did not mount the stage to be presented with a medal, they did the state of Maryland proud and I am so glad that Ian got this opportunity to compete at this level.
So that was it. I got to see some of the best and brightest kids from all over the United States. And I got to see my own child as one of those kids. And I got to do this with my father, who turned 75 this year. It was an awesome and humbling experience. It was hard and required a lot of work and sacrifice to do it, but I certainly could not have planned for things to go better as an experience and example for my child.
Whatever the future holds, I know, despite ups and downs, my son is going to go out in the world, and he is going to do really great things. They might be quiet or they might be loud, but I know that he will see their value, I will see their value, and the kids and parents and coaches and people like them out in the world will see and understand their value too. And even though this experience and homeschooling was never about religion, the gift it has given to me is faith, in humanity, for my country and in my children's future.
That is a rare gift.
And that is what I saw at the 28th Science Olympiad.