Flexing Their Brains

Intermediate and high school students from seven Kauai schools competed in the Science Olympiad. With the emphasis on math, science and technology today, their accomplishments make you feel positive about the future

Students stretched their minds and flexed their brains at the seventh annual Science Olympiad last month. Ryan Girard, Kauai regional director for Science Olympiad, refers to the event as the Olympics of science. Teams from participating schools compete against each other in different scientific categories, including astronomy, simple machines, crime busters and bottle rocket. Each school can have up to two teams of no more than 15 students, and there are 13 different categories.

“Just like if you’re training for the 100-meter dash, you’re not necessarily going to compete in another event,” explains Girard. “You compete in whatever event you’re training for.”

Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded to winning competitors, and the top two teams with the most gold medals overall in each division go on to the state competition. Whatever team wins at the state level continues on to the Nationals in Nebraska in May.

This year, 110 students from seven Kauai schools participated. Island School intermediate students won first and second places and high schoolers first place. Thus, they’ll be heading to the state competition at Leeward Community College on Oahu, joined by Waimea High School (second place in the high school division) and St. Theresa School (third in intermediate).

What Girard likes most about the competition is that it gives students a chance to enhance their scientific muscles. They not only learn more, they get to compete and have hands-on experiences that aren’t as readily available in the classroom.

“It’s a chance for someone in middle school or high school to really make a connection in this field and realize that if they have a desire to be an engineer down the road, they’re already really involved in it now,” says Girard. “If you steer away from math and science early on, it’s difficult to come back.”

Regular practice in the sciences keeps doors open for students, particularly in fields such as medicine and computer programming.

What also makes this competition so unique is that while fields in STEM traditionally have been male-dominated, females outnumber male participants at the local Science Olympiad.

“That by itself is a wonderful thing,” says Girard. “We’re reaching the target group that we’d like to increase. We want to increase the interest in STEM anyway, but the fact that we’ve got more girls than boys is awesome. They believe they can do it and be successful at it.”

What has also pleasantly surprised Girard is the out-pouring of support from the community. Science Olympiad is entirely voluntary, from judges to coaches.

“The teachers are really involved and they’re gungho about it, the kids are enthusiastic, and the volunteers for this event come out of the woodwork,” says Girard. “Everyone just comes together to make it happen.”

Joe Corbo is one of the volunteer coaches for the middle school team from Island School. The sixth-grade science teacher does it because he thinks it’s beneficial for the kids.

“I think it teaches them a lot of life lessons about success and failure, trial, and trying to figure out what really works,” he says.

It’s not just reading and learning from a book, it’s physically taking action with something like building a bridge. “It’s real science,” he says.

Corbo likes working closely with the kids and watching them understand something for the first time.

“Seeing the light bulb go on is why I do it,” he says. There were more than 20 volunteers from the community, including representatives from Kauai Community College, where the event was held, that made Science Olympiad possible.

“It’s fun to get involved with the kids,” says Sarah Thompson, who was one of those volunteers. She wishes she had been given similar opportunities as a child.

“If I had, I would have been more interested in science and would have gotten involved sooner,” says the employee of Dow AgroSciences.

Girard thinks it’s great that the kids get to interact with various members of the community, especially from agencies like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and KCC, where he is employed.

Girard was asked to be Kauai regional director after moving to Kauai from Oahu about four years ago, because of his former participation as a judge at Science Olympiad at Leeward Community College.

“I have a love for science,” says Girard, who teaches math and has a background in meteorology. “I like being involved with the students. It’s kind of a labor of love because it’s a chance to get the students here passionate about doing science. They choose to come here and choose to compete. I can feel their excitement.”

Even though this was a record year as far as participation is concerned, Girard hopes more kids will be excited about joining the competition next year, and he encourages schools to participate in the scientific fun.

Visit hsso.org for more information.