The Science Olympiad team at Great Oak High School in Temecula was cruising right along last spring, looking to nail down yet another regional championship. That’s when COVID-19 struck.
Though the worldwide pandemic ended the season, the team is up and running again this year, competing at new events they couldn’t have competed in before, according to Jeff MacLean, GOHS science teacher and Science Olympiad coach.
MacLean leads the program with the help of Tammy Draughon, an AP and IB physics teacher at the school.
“In essence, because we can’t meet in-person, opportunities to compete more often and or to compete in bigger sessions and bigger places has opened up things that we would’ve never done or had time to do,” he said in a phone call. “Things we could never afford to do are now affordable and we have time to do because the kids don’t really have anything else.”
So far, they’ve competed in competitions hosted by the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Texas at Austin, one in Georgia and another hosted by high schools on the East Coast called the Transcontinental Invitational. They finished fifth at that one, fifth out of 85 teams from across the country, and the team won medals in four events.
All the competitions are held virtually. Due to the shutdown of schools because of the coronavirus, that’s all they can do. But MacLean said he sees a silver lining.
“(The program has) actually grown,” he said. “We have more kids doing it now than we had in a regular year, even though we don’t meet in person. We meet on Zoom, and the kids meet in Google classrooms and Canvas just like we do in class.
“And then they do it themselves, and they want to do it. And we’ve been very successful. We’ve got 60 kids that have been competing and there’s probably 75 that have been here, involved that haven’t been competing,” he said.
At a Science Olympiad competition, students work together in teams of up to 15 to compete in 23 events. The events change from year to year, covering fields and topics including: anatomy and biology, earth science, chemistry, physics, geology, mechanical and structural engineering and technology.
MacLean said one of the most popular events this year is epidemiology.
“All the kids want to do it, but unfortunately it’s limited to two on each team,” MacLean said.
MacLean said the students try to make it onto teams in areas they are interested in. Most compete in several areas during the competitions.
“I have kids that are really good at chemistry and so they’ll do chemistry and there’s another event, forensics, and they will maybe do chemistry in forensics and water quality,” he said. “It’s all chemistry and that’s their strength. Other kids that are really good at building stuff, and they’ll usually do the build events. This year, that would be the helicopter.
“Because there’s some structural engineering, we’re using some high, high power engineering software called SkyCiv and the kids will design that. They’re doing another one where they use CAD. There’s one called cybersecurity this year, and they will write some code or look at some situation and problem-solve it and figure out what’s wrong with it,” MacLean said. “They’re still doing some builds, but most of it is tests on topics like fossils, ornithology and machines.
“There’s one team, they built a helicopter. It’s a rubber band powered thing, and you try to make it stay in the air as long as possible with certain building parameters,” MacLean said.
He said to get to 45 students, they have a varsity, junior varsity and freshman team. The program is for students looking to get into college with science majors, and a number of them have made it into Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology, Princeton University, etc.
“Being involved in this program helps them get in too,” he said.
As for this year’s teams, the early season competitions are behind them, and they are ready to go for the big wins.
“As we’re moving forward in the season, now the kids are getting more experienced, they know some stuff,” MacLean said. “So, from a coaching standpoint, now I want the kids working with their partners, getting comfortable. You’re supposed to know this material, and they know it. They’re getting better and stronger and our performance has been better as well.
“I think of it just like I’m coaching basketball. I think of it the same way. I want scrimmages at the beginning. I want to see what the kids can do. let them get the hang of it. At the end of practice, you always have a scrimmage and see what people can do. That’s what we did early on. And now we’re into where, OK, now we’ve got our top teams put together and now we’re going to do some real competitions,” he said.
MacLean said the teams will compete Saturday, Dec. 19, at the Yosemite Competition, then in the University of California Davis Invitational, the Golden Gate Invitational hosted by Stanford and UC Berkeley, and at the MIT Invite. The regional competition is set for late February and if all goes well, he said, they will move on to the state competition next April.
“I always make a goal at once like that if our team can come in the top half, then we’re successful,” MacLean said of the national competitions. “If we can come in, let’s say 60th, then we’re beating half the teams from across the nation and that’s pretty good.
“Then we go to our regional competition in February where if we don’t win, I’ll be disappointed. That’s competing against Riverside County and San Bernardino County schools,” he said.
He said teams from Temecula Valley and Chaparral high schools compete in the Science Olympiad as well.
Ultimately, the teams and the competitions are about giving students an opportunity to learn, MacLean said.
“If the kids want to do this, they can, and I’m trying to give them the opportunity,” he said. “I think it takes the focus of the kids off all the c*** going on in the real world, and they buckle down and study… They look past the next few months toward their futures. That’s why you do this – you want the kids to be successful with whatever they want to do.
“I’m excited for the kids, and I’m excited they’re doing as well as they are,” MacLean said.
Jeff Pack can be reached by email at email@example.com.