Daughters of Invention: How Science Olympiad Inspires NCS Students

by Scott Butterworth
On a Saturday morning in December, the hallways of Woodley North are not only open but buzzing—filled with scores of excited high school students from around the region.
Some are putting the final touches on homemade wind turbines. A couple of doors down, others are huddled together for last-minute cramming on an imminent ecology test. And downstairs, an NCS student, Goldie Roth ’17, is pulling very carefully on a string that will launch a ping-pong ball through the air.
Welcome to Science Olympiad, a scholastic competition that, depending on where you’re looking at any one time, amounts to a science fair, midterm-exam week, a Rube Goldberg demonstration or an engineering tour de force.
In only its second year at NCS, “SciOly” has become an extracurricular of choice, with nearly 50 students—some 15 percent of the Upper School—signing up for it. What attracts them, they say, is the opportunity to build things, to go deeper than ever in a particular topic, and to join with others who truly enjoy science.
“I’m very glad I have done it,” said Natalie Nigro ’16, adding that it gave her “really valuable experience with hands-on engineering.”
“It’s very, very rewarding,” agreed Anna Christou ’17. “I’ve learned so much about science, and it’s expanded my horizons.”
In SciOly, teams of 15 students square off in 23 events involving biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and earth science. Some events present students with open- book exams, while others call on them to construct things—a bridge, an airplane, or, as in Roth’s case, a cannon that can accurately hit a target. Results are tallied, and the schools are ranked. The overall winner is the one that ranks near the top in most events.
Warmup meets such as the December one at NCS serve as preparation for the big year-end tournaments: regionals and state. In April, NCS won the Maryland state tournament’s small-school division, taking gold medals in 10 of the 23 events. The only all-girls team in the tournament, it held its own against far bigger schools in Maryland, placing sixth overall out of 25 large and small schools.
Science Olympiad is new to NCS, but it’s hardly a new program, now in its third decade. Nationally, it is settling in alongside spelling and geography bees and model UN conferences as venues where students get to compete academically. That, said Nigro, “drives you to learn more and work harder, and also the competition makes it more fun.”
Right away, the idea struck a chord in the Upper School: Enough students expressed interest that two teams were formed, with alternates as well. This year, the number is up to three teams. The participants found that, as Christou noted, SciOly calls for “quite a bit of a time commitment,” including occasional weekend practice. But the payoff is picking up new skills along the way. What the events all share is a need for teammates to collaborate, solve problems creatively, and have fun.
The mix of events, said Julia Stavreva ’17, allows competitors to pursue whatever interests them. “It’s About Time, for example, focuses specifically on clockwork and timekeeping, and the test is very narrow. So if you have a passion for a specific type of science, this helps you with that,” she said.
Dominique Turner ’16 said her experience with the Disease Detectives event has led her to consider a career in public health, while Lily McGrail ’17 followed her interest in engineering to the Robot Arm event. Brett Pearson ’18, who competed this year in Protein Modeling, said, “There are so many paper tests in school. We rarely ever get to build something. So this is really cool.”
But Michelle Zhu ’17 preferred the paper-test events, which she said have taught her better organizational skills. While students are allowed to bring in reference materials, it’s crucial to arrange those materials “so you know where everything is and you can actually find something during the test.”
Macallan Penberthy ’17, who was among the first group of students to sign up in 2014, couldn’t be more enthusiastic about Science Olympiad. “Not only have I learned about a myriad of interesting topics,” she said, “but I have made friends that I can count on to support me and my interests.
“It has been one of the highlights of my high school experience.”
This article first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of NCS Magazine.
    • Goldie Roth '17 fine-tunes her Science Olympiad creation.

    • The 2015-2016 Science Olympiad team.