Olympiad competition sparks interest in science

Staff Writer

 Maria Galkin and Ben Hong of Hammarskjold Middle School, East Brunswick, participate in the bottle rocket challenge during the New Jersey Olympiad State Finals Tournament held at Middlesex County College in Edison on March 10.  STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Maria Galkin and Ben Hong of Hammarskjold Middle School, East Brunswick, participate in the bottle rocket challenge during the New Jersey Olympiad State Finals Tournament held at Middlesex County College in Edison on March 10. STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR EDISON — Dozens of middle and high school students filled the grounds of Middlesex County College with goggles and experimental designs in tow, but it wasn’t for a standard science fair.

The 23rd annual New Jersey Science Olympiad State Finals tournament was held March 10. More than 50 schools from across New Jersey competed in several competitions ranging from engineering events to written exams.

The state competition consists of 24 events and two trial events, according to Dr. Jennifer Wirt, director of the New Jersey Science Olympiad.

“We have 24 regular events, and the extra events are trials that each division — [middle school and high school] — has a chance to participate in. We have 18 members to a team usually, but with trial events we can allow two additional members to be alternates to participate in that particular event,” Wirt said.

“What is great about the Olympiad is there are all the main events, and then there’s other events. So if a kid likes paper and pencil, they can do that, or if they like hands-on events, they can do that too. There are so many different things in so many different areas.”

This year, Mystery Architecture was the middle school trial event, and several middle school participants were given quite the challenge, according to Wirt.

“For the middle school trial event, the participants are given a bag of mystery items to make something with, like a catapult or a tower of some sort. They have a certain time span to use those materials to build the best device they possibly can,” she said.

Rohan Sharma and Ryan McCarthy of Ranney Middle School in Tinton Falls said the Olympiad furthered their interests in science.

“Last year, I really liked my science teacher, and he told me to try the Olympiad out. So I did, and it is really a lot of fun because I get to hang out with my friends,” Ryan said.

Rohan said the Olympiad is a good way to get involved with something of interest.

“I like science and building things, so I knew this would be a good way to do that,” Rohan said.

The high school division’s trial event — “What’s Your Number?” — was a competition dealing with mathematics and involved participants solving integer equations and other mathematical problems, according to Wirt.

Another main event held in the College Center was “Mission Possible” for the high school division. Students were required to build a device using electrical, chemical or light energy, according to Curt Hillegas, a judge from Princeton University and an event supervisor for the Olympiad.

“The main challenge in this event is keeping track of energy transfers and to think like an engineer by making the device reproducible and work in a specific amount of time,” he said.

Junior Eric Duong and senior Belal Said from J.P. Stevens High School in Edison participated in “Mission Possible,” preparing for the competition for several weeks.

“I think that, even though we did plan a lot before today, our main problem was starting late. You always have to consider everything, and there was a lot of planning that went into how we wanted to have this device designed,” Eric said.

Belal said the Olympiad made him certain as far as what studies he plans to pursue in college next year.

“I am looking forward to going to college for mechanical engineering and computer science,” Belal said.

A coach is required from each school participating in the Olympiad, and most schools have tryouts, according to Wirt.

“We open for registration in September, and we get people emailing about the competition way before that. Tryouts in some schools begin in September, and a team is made by the fall to prepare for regional competitions in January,” she said.

Elaine Ferreira, a coach for the Olympiad team at Hammarskjold Middle School in East Brunswick, said her students are always excited to be part of the team.

“Last year, our team went to regionals and scored second place, and that is great for us since we are a school just for sixthand seventh-graders and we compete against older children. Our kids participate in a lot of building events prior to competition, and we always ask for feedback from them at the end of the event,” Ferreira said.

Wirt said finding volunteers to help every year can be a challenge. However, she enjoys seeing judges return to the Olympiad after being a past participant.

“A lot of our volunteers running the events are scientists and engineers themselves, and they donate their time for the day and come out to help these kids. Some of our judges this year are from Rutgers [University] and are freshman who were just competing in the Olympiad last year,” Wirt said.

Michael Del Corso from Merck and Co. Inc. and Matt Dubno from Baldwin and Obenauf Inc. were judges for the “Scrambler” competition this year, but fondly remember their experiences as friends in high school participating in the Olympiad.

“I remember how much I enjoyed being one of them, so it is great to help this organization give that feeling to more and more students,” Del Corso said.

With other challenges students in New Jersey face today, this day is one where students can learn in a fun environment, Dubno said.

“I heard that this year a lot of students are taking more standardized tests, and this is something different and more practical for kids, and you see improvement in their skills annually,” he said.

Wirt said the competition truly prepares students for the real world.

“It is such a team event and really gets kids used to working together and not staying so isolated,” she said.

Winners from each division go to the national tournament at the University of Nebraska, May 15-16. Locally, Crossroads Middle School in South Brunswick came in third and Noor-Ul-Iman School in South Brunswick came in fourth in the middle school division, while J.P. Stevens placed third and South Brunswick High School placed sixth for high schools.

For more information, visit www.njscienceolympiad.org.