Science Olympiad team members banish stereotypes

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Roosevelt High School Science Olympiad team member, senior Kyra Burns (left), 18, examines a Bunsen burner flame color to help determine the chemical being burned while sophomore Brendan Gutenschwager (second from left), 14, and freshman Brittany Smith, 15, look at the next chemical selected for the flame test by science teacher Tina Weller.

Sunday Times Newspapers

WYANDOTTE – When senior Sara Hopper, 17, tells freshmen that “a lot of people do it… and it’s fun,” she is quick to add that she’s talking about Roosevelt’s Science Olympiad team.

The 15-member team will compete for a fourth year against high school teams from Monroe and Wayne County March 17 at the regional Science Olympiad held at the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus. The competition challenges what students know, how they think, and how they apply knowledge through written tests, hands-on lab experiments and engineering building tasks.

The national Science Olympiad, now in its 28th year, advances winning teams to state and national level competitions.

Roosevelt Earth science and chemistry teacher Tina Weller said the regional competition is a wonderful learning experience outside of the classroom.

“I especially enjoy sharing the excitement with students while at the competition,” she said. “For many of them this is the first time on a college campus, and the academically competitive environment really drives them to perform the best that they can.”

Hopper, a third year team member who plans to study chemistry in college, said she is driven by a love of science.

“I like the idea of being around people who also enjoy science,” Hopper said. “I just do it because it’s scientific. It’s my favorite subject.”

This year she will compete in four events: Anatomy and Physiology, Protein Modeling, Towers, and Fermi Questions, which are science-related questions that challenge students to quickly estimate a quantity that is difficult or impossible to measure directly. (It is not related to the nuclear power plant.)

Freshman Alexis Salloum-Arp, 14, said she also likes scientific questions for which there is no set answer.

“I just like science because there are so many different ways you can go with it,” Salloum-Arp said. “There’s not one set answer, and there are different ways of going about it. It’s just not cut and dried.”

Inspired by the television show “The Forensic Files,” she would like to go to Michigan State University to study forensic science.

“My dad kind of got me into (science) when I was little,” Salloum-Arp said. “He’s like into those documentaries and stuff so I kind of got into it at a young age.”

Salloum-Arp will compete in the water quality and experimental design events.

Like Salloum-Arp, senior Jake Parshall, 17, also plans to attend Michigan State University, but he is not sure if he wants to go into science, which is just one of his many interests. He said he plans to attend the Residential College of Arts and Humanities.

Parshall will compete in three events: Disease Detectives, Forensics, and Sound of Music, for which he will build two different music instruments prior to the competition, on which he will play a scale and melodies for judges.

He said it is the first time he has taken part in an event that requires so much preparation.

Parshall said that sometimes events overlap and students must join a new event without any prior preparation. He said in March 2010 when he was a sophomore he unexpectedly competed in the ecology challenge with team member Kelly Stec.

“We were put on that challenge that day and we went in blind and we got a bronze medal,” Parshall said, adding that the test questions were on the Arctic Tundra.

First-year team member Brittany Smith, 15, is glad that she, like Parshall, joined the Science Olympiad team as a freshman because she also wants an activity that she can do for all four years of high school.

She said science is fun for her because there are so many different fields.

“There’s so much complicated stuff to it,” she said. “It just makes you think really hard about it, which I really like to do.”

Smith, who wants to become a nurse or doctor, will compete in four events: Forestry, Dynamic Planet (related to earth science), Fermi Questions, and Write It, Do It, which has one student writing directions for another student to re-create a contraption using only their written input.

Sophomore Brendan Gutenschwager, 14, likes watching events like write it, build it, which allow students to watch the events and experiments as they occur.

“It’s just a really cool atmosphere,” Gutenschwager said. “You’re around a bunch of people who enjoy science as well… it’s just a really nice feeling.”

In addition to watching as many events as time allows, he will compete in chemistry lab, astronomy, and technical problem solving.

He added there are so many so many different categories – 23 – that participants have a wide variety of choices.

Roosevelt’s 15 team members will compete in all but one of the events – robotic arm. Tina Weller said the team did not have the resources to design, build, document and test a robotic arm capable of moving scored items.

Team member and senior Kyra Burns, 18, did, however, take on the challenge of two other so-called “buildable events.”

The first is Gravity Car, which uses gravitational potential energy on a ramp as the sole means of propulsion to reach a point quickly, on target, and as close as possible to the predicted time.

The second is a thermodynamics event, which requires team members to build an insulated device prior to the tournament.

She also plans to take part in the chemistry lab event.

Last year Burns said she helped build a tower that was stable on top but didn’t have enough legs on the bottom to support weight.

“It was pretty funny because we didn’t know what we were doing at all and none of us had any kind of building experience,” she said. “It ended up sinking into the table when we added the bucket on it.”

However, another event she entered without any experience earned her a seventh place medal in the dynamic planet event.

“I got thrown in at the last minute because… when we get the (Science Olympiad) schedule there’s always something that overlaps that we can never figure out how to schedule.”

She said Weller’s Earth science class indirectly prepared her to take to test, which was about volcanos and volcanic plates.

“I think a lot of kids in our school end up going into science careers because we’ve got quite a large department.”

She hopes to study chemical or biomedical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, where she is excited about the laboratories set up in old mine shafts so they can study the natural chemistry of the land.

Weller’s husband Jeffrey who teaches chemistry and biology, said it has been rewarding to coach such an academically driven group of students for the past four years, especially in the Downriver area, which he said is under-represented at the regional Science Olympiad competition.

While Woodhaven High School has placed in the top three spots in the last three years (second in 2009, first in 2010 and third in 2011), non-Downriver schools have produced more winning teams.

Wyandotte Roosevelt place 14 out of 21 teams in 2009, 14 out of 18 teams in 2010, and 11 out of 19 teams in 2011 regional competition.

In last year’s regional competion (in March 2011) Annapolis placed 13th, Crestwood 9th, Dearborn 14th and Melvindale took 17th place out of 19 entries.

Jeffrey Weller said he is impressed with his team’s overall standing and the improvements it’s made over the past several years, especially since he said the students prepare almost entirely on their own.

The team includes Smith, Salloum-Arp, Katie Krusi, Gutenschwager, 14, Jill Scribner, 15, Evan Arminiak, 15, and Larry Stec, 15; juniors Cameron Snyder-Pitts, 16, and Tommy Nicholson, 16; and seniors Jacob Krastes, 17, Parshall, Shelley Scribner, 17, Anthony Michael, 17, Hopper, and Burns.

“All the team members really support each other, win or lose, but are so excited when they do win medals,” Tina Weller said.