Students from LASA Team at MIT Invitational (Image Credit: Dusty Schroeder)

This post is the first in a three-part series highlighting youth science competitions that task young people with the real challenges and rewards of a life in research.

Most of us have memories of gluing paper headings on trifold cardboard, breaking down our simple experiments into background, hypothesis, method, results and conclusions. We have stood at our posters and presented as the judges came by, explaining what we had tried to investigate and the importance of what we had found. In fact, I imagine that many graduate students have had flashbacks to their cardboard trifolds when standing at their first poster session at a scientific conference. Learning to distill and present your work and its importance in a clear and concise way is valuable no matter what career you pursue.

But not everyone may know that we live in a time in which science competitions have pushed beyond these early boundaries, integrating technology and taking great strides to place young people into both the content and the challenges of real science.

There are numerous competitions worthy of note, but this series will be highlighting three which bring out a particular set of skills:

  • Competing directly with others as part of a team in a highly specialized field of expertise
  • Competing for access to limited resources to investigate a proposed problem
  • Utilizing modern technology and media to communicate the importance of your results

This post highlights a competition that embodies the first point: Science Olympiad.


My own experience with Science Olympiad extends back to the eighth grade, when I was a competitor on a team that went all the way to nationals in 1999. The history of the program itself extends back 31 years to a group of science teachers who wanted to bring the competitive team spirit typical in sports into an academic arena that requires “preparation, commitment, coaching and practice throughout the year.”

That competition now has over 7000 teams of up to 15 students competing each year. Competitions take place progressively, with regional winners competing at state competitions, and eventually the top teams competing each year at the national event.

This January, MIT hosted an invitational event with more than 60 teams from 14 states. The competition was run by the university and an extensive network of alumni volunteers who flew in from across the country to support the program they felt had been so fundamental in their development as early scientists.

The keynote speech was given by Dr. Dusty Schroeder. He is currently a Radar Geophysicist and Systems Engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, a National Event Supervisor for middle school astronomy events, and co-chair of the National Earth and Space Science Committee for Science Olympiad. He is also an alumus of Science Olympiad.

His speech highlighted the importance of having a competitive edge to your curiosity for anyone considering a career in science. In a conversation afterwards, I asked him why he had been motivated to stay involved after more than a decade.

Student competitor testing his machine in practice (Image Credit: Dusty Schroeder)

“Science Olympiad pushes you beyond the step of coming up with an interesting idea,” Dr. Schroeder said. “You know that the best teams and the best competitors are out there with the same goals and the same restrictions that you face. That kind of knowledge is what motivates everyone to push beyond just thinking about creating something cool and start thinking about how to design and develop the best solution to the problem.”

As this blog has discussed before, it isn’t possible for any single person to become an expert in everything. You focus in a given area to know as much as possible for the chance at reaching the edge of knowledge in that area and getting to push that edge out a tiny bit farther.

In Science Olympiad, the scope of this focus is defined each year by the rules released for the 23 events. These events must be covered by combinations of members from each team of 15 students and range from engineering events to in-depth, knowledge-based test taking. The rules are highly specific for each event.

For the building (engineering) events there is a single specific goal that needs to be accomplished. One example is to build a car that carries an egg as fast and as straight as possible towards a target on a wall and stops as close as possible to that wall without cracking the egg. There are also limitations on the materials used, space allowed, time for execution, power source, mount for the egg, and many other factors. The distance itself is only revealed to the competitor in the 8 minutes she has to calibrate for the given distance and then run the car. That means that students – ages 11-18 – have to have a strong enough working knowledge of anything they build to be able to adapt, calibrate, and deliver in the moment of the competition.

Dr. Schroeder said that the experience had profound parallels with his own work having to diagnose and repair sophisticated instruments while in-flight over Antarctica. “When you are part a team and using a sophisticated suite of instruments to collect data in a remote setting, one of the challenges is getting the most scientifically valuable data possible given the constraints of resources and time. If one of the instruments goes down in the field, you need to work with your teammates to adapt, repair, and repurpose as best you can. It's actually a lot like a Science Olympiad competition.”

Student competitors preparing on the day of competition (Image Credit: Dusty Schroeder)

This need to come through in the moment of competition is something that carries over into the written events as well. The general scope of the event may remain from year to year, such as “Solar Systems,” “Dynamic Planet,” or “Disease Detectives.” But the focus of each event will change the types of stars and processes, data types that will be used, type of ocean processes, or types of diseases.

On the day of competition, pairs of students will have an hour to complete an exam which - by design - is meant to require the work of two students at their very best even to complete. These pairs have to know their skill sets and their time-management to trust the work of their partner and get through. Depending on the event, the students may be able to bring in binders or other resources. But when the one-hour limit is taken into consideration, it means that the competitors will have put in extensive preparation to make sure that they can find and use the correct resource in only a matter of moments on the day.

Dr. Susannah Burrows of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Science Olympiad alumna and volunteer from the recent MIT Invitational, said the level of partnership and teamwork required for preparing for the events had a lasting impact for her. For the event “Qualitative Analysis” (known as “Can't Judge a Powder” when Dr. Burrows competed) teams use a limited set of chemical tests and tools to identify both individual and mixed white powders as quickly as possible. Dr. Burrows and her partner spent hours together in a chemistry lab preparing.

Teammates preparing one of their events (Image Credit: Dusty Schroeder)

“My teammate and I created a gigantic flowchart, mapping out an algorithm, a predetermined set of decision points that led us to the correct solution as efficiently as possible,” Dr. Burrows explained. “We asked the chemistry teacher to give us a new set of challenge powders every week, and week after week, we repeatedly tested and refined our procedure until we could almost do it in our sleep.”

Dr. Burrows said that this process of defining, testing, and improving algorithms is not so different from the approach she now takes when drafting, and then refining, a new piece of code for analyzing data from a climate model or observations. “Even this work I find the most rewarding when it is done together with a well-functioning team.”

Given the commitment and capability of the students involved, it can be dangerously easy to underestimate the competitors when creating exams. In my own tenure as an event supervisor I saw 14-year-old competitors not only out-perform college students on structural geology tasks, but also come up to me after the hour and thank me for writing such a difficult exam. Dr. Burrows had a similar experience at the MIT tournament with students expressing gratitude for the opportunity to take such a hard exam. “Having been in their shoes, I can understand why,” Dr. Burrows said, “but at the same time it was kind of unexpected.”

Students competing in Dynamic Planet event (Image Credit: Susannah Burrows)

Because the competition has been around for so long, many alumni have grown to play bigger roles within Science Olympiad as well as have careers throughout STEM. Dr. Schroeder competed from 1997-2002, and then moved from co- Event Supervisor to National Event Supervisor to Committee Co-Chair over the next 12 years. He also coached a high school team from 2007-2014, competing against teams around the country coached by many of his own former teammates. Dr. Burrows' early exposure to simple physical models of climate has developed into a career studying atmospheric aerosols.

Some alumni acknowledge the value of seeing Science Olympiad experience on the resume of potential research assistants and interns. “It isn’t just about the background knowledge they would have had to develop,” Dr. Schroeder explained. “Because you have been there personally, you know the level of focus, competitiveness, and teamwork that would have been involved.”

Both in Science Olympiad and in research your expertise is so specialized that your most direct competitors often become valuable assets in the advancement of your own field. “When you are a scientist, the only people who deeply understand what you do are your own team and your competitors.” Dr. Schroeder explained. “In science these people become your peer reviewers. In Science Olympiad, they become future test writers and judges.”

Many alumni credit Science Olympiad as their first exposure to the science that eventually became their careers, science they would not have otherwise encountered in a classroom setting. But those I talked to said that it was the bonds of teamwork and friendship that were some of the most lasting impacts. The teams are sharing an intense and demanding experience that shows them the extent of their own academic abilities as well as their own resilience and skill to balance the good of their own team with their own ambitions and abilities. They learned to work in teams and partnerships that have led to friendships and professional collaborations many years down the line.

Dr. Burrows and Dr. Schroeder are themselves an excellent example. The two first met as high school competitors from different states. Their teams competed for multiple years at the national level, building both a rivalry and a mutual respect. While their competitive spirits remain in their daily lives as researchers, the rivalry has passed. Still states apart, they consider each other valuable resources for both their research and their commitment to training the next generation of scientific minds.