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September 4, 2013

Churning out Olympiads through science

By Maria Allard
C & G Staff Writer

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A local student competes in the “Towers Event” at a recent Science Olympiad tournament at Macomb Community College’s South Campus in Warren.

Wanted: budding scientists to become part of a school group that can blast off water-bottle rockets, memorize scientific terminology, and skillfully find bone and muscle groups in the body. 

You must possess an interest in science, show enthusiasm for engineering and work well with others.

As a new school year gets underway, Macomb Science Olympiad officials are reminding teachers and parents that this is the time of year to begin assembling teams for the nonprofit organization’s annual Science Olympiad tournament this spring.

Science Olympiad is designed to increase student interest and test scores in science, while strengthening problem-solving and teamwork skills. Astronomy, meteorology, rocks and minerals, forensics, and reflection relay are among the categories.

“This is a time when the teams are getting themselves organized and find someone to serve as the head coach,” Science Olympiad Elementary Tournament Director John Ogden said.

Macomb Science Olympiad is the local branch of a nonprofit nationwide program that primarily serves Macomb and St. Clair counties. Public and private schools can register one team, and each team can bring up to 15 students to the tournament. Two to three students compete in each category based on student interests.

“Every kid on the team generally ends up competing in two events,” Ogden said.

The middle school and high school tournament is set for March, while the elementary school competition will be held in May. Both events are housed at the Macomb Community College South Campus’ Sports & Expo Center in Warren.

“They donate the facility for the tournament,” Ogden said. “We have room for 80 teams.”

By January, the teams begin meeting for about 90 minutes once a week. There is a head coach per team, and then various coaches for each individual event that comprise the tournament. Coaches can be principals, teachers and parents, and they are trained via handbooks, workshops and mentoring.

The tournaments generally center on three types of competitions: memorization, demonstrating a skill and building something in advance that works appropriately. The students are judged on each competition they’re in with the chance to win medals.

“Some events, the students will be clustered away in a room where it’s more like a test environment or stations are set up,” Ogden said.

Other events are out in the open, where members of the crowd cheer on the teams.

“Everyone’s screaming,” Ogden said. “You’d think you were at a Michigan football game.”

Ogden has been involved with Science Olympiad for 30 years, including years spent as a coach. It began when his children attended Roberts Elementary School in Utica Community Schools.

“I loved it,” he said. “I enjoyed running the team. It was wonderful.”

The top middle school and high school divisions at the regional tournament are eligible to attend the state tournament in East Lansing. The top teams from the state tournament qualify for the national competition.

Cherokee Elementary School teacher Ruth Cummins has been a Science Olympiad coach for 29 years. Cherokee is part of Chippewa Valley Schools.

“You’re reaching the high-achieving kids. This was a real good way to challenge above and beyond what they do in the classroom each day,” Cummins said. “Last year, I had kids after school every day. The competition is really tough. The students study very hard. They want to win a medal. That’s a pretty strong incentive for them to study even harder.”

Science Olympiad has set the foundation for many careers among her students, including those who work for NASA. The “Weather or Not” event prompted another student to study meteorology in college. Chippewa holds a district competition before the regional competition at MCC.

“To have everyone cheering for science, it’s just fantastic,” Cummins said. “Just seeing the students have success and how they’ve grown and how much they’ve learned is very rewarding.”

Ogden said it costs each team $100 to participate. Different companies pick up the remaining expenses.

For more information on Macomb Science Olympiad, visit www.macombso.org.