Northridge Science Olympiad provides challenges
by Guy Thompson
Science Olympiad consists of 23 different challenges. The program may call them “events” but they are really challenges.
Maybe the challenge is a test on genetics, chemistry or microbes. Others will need to “demonstrate chemistry laboratory skills.” Analyze a crime scene.
Then there are the “builds.” Design, build and test an electric vehicle that will travel and stop as close as possible to a specific spot, as quickly as possible. Design, build and test a robotic arm to move certain objects, scored on time and accuracy. Build a helicopter. Build a windmill.
But these are all challenges that Northridge High School and Northridge Middle School teams are clearly up to meeting head-on. The high school has won the state contest and advanced to the national contest in 2011, and was runner-up at state in 2006. The team has finished in the top 10 at the state contest for 15 of the past 17 years.
The team will compete at the regional competition in Goshen on February 11, with the top four teams advancing to the state meet at IU Bloomington in March.
Science Olympiad Coach Jeremy Gerber has been with the program for 17 years. Science
Olympiad itself has been at NHS since 1993. “I’ve coached long enough that with most of the kids, I’ve been doing this longer than they’ve been alive,” he quipped. Gerber, a physics teacher at the school, was asked to help with Science Olympiad when started at the high school. “I see it getting kids doing a lot of things they don’t do in the classroom,” he noted.
But the real goal is trying to get the team back to the national contest, Gerber admitted.
As a coach handling both the high school and middle school teams, Gerber has 46 different events to help students with. “It can be challenging at times,” he pointed out. And by the time they get into the high school level, the difficulty can really go up. “All of them can be challenging,” Gerber stated. Labs and tests are all done behind closed doors. “But it’s a real challenge to build something, test it, refine it, and then have to run it in front of a crowd at the competitions. That adds a different dimension to it,” he noted.
For the students competing, it is a chance to explore different areas of science. Biology, physics, chemistry, social sciences, engineering, natural science, and more all have their respective events to challenge students. As the students advance, they can begin to specialize in an area that they enjoy, Gerber said. “They can narrow down to a specific discipline.”
There is also real pressure to perform at the home meet each year. The Northridge High School Science Olympiad hosted its annual competition January 21 at the high school and middle school. A total of 68 high school and middle school teams from around the region competed in the 23 different science events. Part of the pressure is that many of the events are being run by past Science Olympiad team members. “Over 30 of our alumni are returning to help. It’s great to see them come back, but they can also be the biggest critics of the current team,” Gerber stated.
The NHS invitational is the largest Science Olympiad meet in the state and one of the largest in the nation. “I don’t know how we got that big,” Gerber said. Some of that was word of mouth from other coaches. “They like the facility. They like how organized it is. We run 46 events and I double check that it will all work. I put people where they know what they are doing.” Coaches are required to help run one event during the day, along with the Science Olympiad alumni and up to 60 parents, all working to make the day run as smooth as possible.
Meanwhile, the high school and middle school teams continue to grow. Middlebury has one full middle school team and three high school teams, with each team consisting of 15 students who each tackle two or three events. “The kids come to us to join the team,” Gerber said. The numbers allow him to let students pursue the areas that they are interested in.
That has paid off over the years as students have had the opportunity to discover what they want to do after high school. “It exposes them to sciences that they are otherwise not exposed to,” Gerber noted. One past team member has a doctorate in astronomy, something they were introduced to in Science Olympiad. Another had a doctorate in forensics. “They start at this age and some figure out what they are good at,” Gerber said. “You see what it can do for the kids and where a lot of them end up.”
“One of the things that keeps me doing this is having fun with the students,” Gerber continued. “It is a lot of fun and it is a lot of work.”