Three weeks before the competition, the Sehome Science Olympiad Facebook page sees a frenzy of activity. Students are bombarded by reminders to turn in permission slips and screen print t-shirts. Work parties are scheduled. Event changes are announced. Anticipation builds. Many long nights later, hordes of coffee-wielding high schoolers gather at Sehome at 5:00 a.m. to start the journey to Seattle Central College for Science Olympiad

Sehome students make final adjustments to their wind power device at the regional competition. Photo credit: Amy Taylor.

Starting in November, students work in small groups to prepare for tests and building events that take place at the regional Science Olympiad competition. Events span a range of subject areas including biology, chemistry, physics, computer science and environmental science.

Participating schools can register as many fifteen-person teams as they want plus additional alternates. Schools typically register two or three complete teams for the competition. This year, Sehome registered twelve.

“One of the most unique aspects of our team is its size,” notes Mark Toney, Physics teacher at Sehome High School. That seems to be an understatement, as Sehome boasts the largest Science Olympiad team in Washington State, with 23% of the student body participating this year. It easily wins out as the largest club or sport at Sehome.

Students test the accuracy of their robot arm by picking up and moving small piles of coins. Photo credit: Amy Taylor.

“The other unique thing about our team is that it’s completely student-led and student-driven. As coaches, we don’t do much in terms of organizing,” Toney adds. With the help of some impressive color-coded spreadsheets, student leaders spend hours assigning events, checking for scheduling conflicts and keeping team members on track. “I still don’t understand everything they do,” says Toney with a laugh, “but they all put in a lot of time to make this go smoothly.”

However, coaches and students agree that the best moments in Science Olympiad happen when things don’t go smoothly. Toney looks back fondly on the memory of last year’s competition when there was a significant mix-up with event times. “An hour before the competition, everybody’s schedules were completely messed up. Everything was in chaos. We panicked for a second then we just figured it out. Everyone snapped into action to solve the problem.” According to Toney, that day captured the essence of Science Olympiad. “This club teaches students how to work through problems calmly and independently. Students don’t depend on teachers to solve things for them; they learn to think about it on their own or work through it with a partner.”

These students are eager to test the strength of their tower. Photo credit: Amy Taylor.

Science Olympiad is just as much about cooperation as it is about leadership. Sehome Senior Angie Petrichenko values this balance as she prepares for her events. “You have to know that other people are relying on you,” she says. “You don’t have to be the best at science but you’re expected to contribute in whatever ways you can.” This responsibility to contribute is the sole driving force of everyone’s efforts and is the main factor that separates Science Olympiad from the culture of typical high school classes. “Nobody is working for a grade,” Toney points out. “Students take responsibility for learning it. It’s up to the students to excel.”

The sheer size of Sehome’s club clearly sets it apart from other programs. But what’s the real difference? According to Petrichenko, it boils down to the club’s culture. “Science Olympiad is stigmatized as a nerdy place with intense, unsocial people. But here, it’s a social activity as well as being about science.”

Sehome brought 220 students to Seattle on March 4 to compete at Science Olympiad. Photo credit: Amy Taylor.

It’s the social aspect of the club that makes it appeal to the masses. “Science Olympiad clearly promotes STEM education but it really creates enthusiasm among students with a variety of academic interests,” says Amy Hankinson, Chemistry teacher at Sehome High School.

Sehome Science Olympiad isn’t exclusively for future chemists or engineers but for all curious, motivated students. The secret ingredient is a relaxed and inclusive team atmosphere. “There’s a distinct culture here,” says Petrichenko, “It’s the teachers and the students that make it great. Science Olympiad could just be a lot of boring, burdensome work. But we enter the competition looking to have fun and looking to be excited, so that’s how it is for us.”

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