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Science Olympiad brings real-world science to students

Students work on their experiement at the Science Olympiad.
Students work on their experiement at the Science Olympiad.
Hundreds of local middle-school and high-school students recently did the unthinkable. They spent a Saturday doing science experiments.

The students were participating the first annual Gulf Coast Regional Science Olympiad, which was held Jan. 31 at the University of Houston - Clear Lake.

Science Olympiad is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of science education, increasing student interest in science and recognizing outstanding achievements in science education. Although NASA has supported Science Olympiad at the national level since 1992, this was the first venture for JSC.

The local tournament, sponsored by Johnson Space Center, provided students with the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of science disciplines. Events ranged from competitions between rubber band-powered balsa wood airplanes to complex chemistry events where teams determined the identity of unnamed powders.

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Students construct balsa-wood airplanes.
Miguel Suderman, a JSC research scientist, judged an event called Disease Detective. Competitors were required to analyze the fictitious outbreak of a mysterious illness and integrate seemingly non-connected events into a “big picture” -- all in an attempt to figure out the cause and name of the suspected disease.

“Conducting this event was one of the most enjoyable yet challenging things I’ve done in several years,” Suderman said. “I wanted to make the test challenging and fun, while still providing the students with insight as to how epidemiologists conduct analysis.”

In another event called Tower Building, students used balsa wood and adhesives to construct towers according to a basic set of requirements. At the competition, the structures were tested to determine what structural load they could handle. The event was judged by Norm Chaffee, Education Outreach Specialist for InDyne, Inc., and Chris Chilelli, Senior Instructional Designer with JSC's Education and Student Programs Office.

“There were designs that could not be tested because the instructions were not followed, and there were designs that failed to hold the prescribed load,” Chaffee said. “In each case, the competition became a wonderful learning opportunity for the students.”

Students work on their Science Olympiad project.
Students work on their Science Olympiad project.
Involvement in Science Olympiad is similar to involvement in a science fair, in that both events allow students an avenue to perform scientific study. While a science fair project allows students to develop hypotheses, perform experiments and report their findings, Science Olympiad can provide a broader approach to hands-on science.

“Science Olympiad allows students to see how engineers and scientists work in the real world,” said first Science Olympiad coach and Clear Brook High School science teacher Patti Nesrsta. “In most events, students must work as a team, communicating effectively to create something and to solve problems.”

“Science Olympiad represents how the real world works,” Nesrsta said.

Science Olympiad teams compete at the regional level before going on to the Texas State Science Olympiad, which is to be held in April at Texas A&M University. Winners of the state tournament will join 3500 winners from all 50 states to compete at the National Science Olympiad at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in May.

Partners who contributed support to this event included Space Center Houston, Tietronix Software, The Aerospace Academy, The Challenger Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the NASA Alumni League, the UHCL Alumni, James Morrison Photography, Ashley’s Donuts, Victory Camp, the National Science Olympiad and the Texas State Science Olympiad.

Event Director Karen Cohen speaks at the event.
Event Director Karen Cohen speaks at the event.
The event was an “unqualified success,” said Event Director Karen Cohen.

“The success of the inaugural year of this event is due to the contributions of the partners, sponsors, volunteers and mentors who spent countless hours making this event run smoothly,” Cohen said. “Their unselfish donation of time and expertise to help guide these young minds is an investment in the future with untold rewards.”

“The success of the first year indicates a bright future for this collaboration,” said Mike Kincaid, JSC’s Director of Education Programs. “The competition is a great way for NASA to work with others to inspire the next generation of explorers.”

For more information about JSC Education and Student Programs, visit

Karen Cohen
Johnson Space Center, Houston
(281) 483-8522

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Updated: 02/23/2004