STEM Olympians Come to Campus
One thousand of Southern California's brightest middle- and high-school students came to Caltech this past Saturday as the Institute hosted the Southern California finals of a nationwide science and engineering competition. Caltech students from across campus seized the opportunity to show off the Institute, to demonstrate Caltech's commitment to K-12 educational outreach, and participate in a program designed to help students start their careers in science and technology.
Science Olympiad, one of the country's premier science competitions, has been fostering student interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields since the 1980s. Each year, tens of thousands of elementary-, middle-, and high-school students participate in regional meets, with the latter two groups advancing to the state and national levels. Tournaments consist of multiple events that involve laboratory investigation, hands-on engineering, or a written test.
Caltech's involvement with Science Olympiad dates back to 2004: hosting coaches' workshops, designing and scoring regional and state tournaments, and supporting practice competitions. (Observant viewers of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory—much of which purportedly takes place at Caltech—can spot a Science Olympiad brochure on a cafeteria wall in two recent episodes.) But last Saturday was the first time the campus has hosted a meet.
The tournament involved 17 campus buildings and 46 events. Sixty teams, each the winner of a regional competition, chose from among physiology, hydrogeology, protein modeling, and other subjects atypical of the standard pre-college curriculum.
To provide logistical support, Caltech Science Olympiad Club copresidents Nick Trank, a sophomore, and Tony Zhang, a senior, assembled a group of roughly 150 volunteers. "Most were Techers," says Trank, "but some came from UCLA, USC, and other schools." The Caltech Y, which has supported Science Olympiad in recent years through its Make-A-Difference Day, provided volunteers in connection with its centennial celebration. And more than a few walk-ons turned up. "Caltech students and alumni are really into events like this," says sophomore Stephanie Gu, "and this was a local event, so we got a lot more volunteers than we usually do."
One non-local volunteer was former competitor (and Caltech Prank Club president) Julie Jester (BS '14), who flew in from France just for the event. "There was no way I was missing [Science Olympiad at Caltech] after working so hard to get it there," she says. "Science Olympiad is the reason I decided that I wanted to become an engineer."
Sophomore Tiffany Zhang and junior Tyler Okamoto were kept busy coordinating events, while Gu's responsibilities included scorer support. "Scoring can be challenging," she says. "A written test with an answer key, like the Disease Detectives event, might take a few hours to score. But Experimental Design, an engineering event, took six."
The overall winner of the Division B competition (middle school) was Muscatel Middle School from Rosemead—their eighth state win in a row—and the overall winner of the Division C competition (high school) was Troy High School, a Fullerton magnet school that has won the state competition every year since 1996. Both will go on to the national finals at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in May. "Those schools have incredibly dedicated students, parents, and coaches," notes Trank. "Muscatel has hosted an invitational tournament for the past five years, and Troy has weekly after-school study sessions."
For Zhang, one of the day's greatest challenges was not connected to academics. "Most Science Olympiad awards ceremonies start late and run long," he says. "We thought hard about how to streamline ours. We watched videos from other meets and timed how long each portion took. In the end, our ceremony started a little late, but it finished early."
The ceremony opened with a pair of recorded messages. Stephen Hawking welcomed the Beckman Auditorium overflow crowd of family, friends, and locals. Then Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum expressed the Institute's gratitude at being able to host the event because "having incredibly talented young men and women on our campus doing great things is exactly what we like to see."
And what does it take to be invited to host a statewide science competition? In this case, student leaders strategized for years, then coordinated with administrators to petition the Science Olympiad national organization. "The Caltech administration was tremendously supportive," acknowledges Trank. "They've been as excited as we are." In the future, he hopes Caltech will have the opportunity to host more statewide meets, perhaps even the nationals. "We've got great facilities. We've got great people. And what better opportunity is there to get these young students onto campus?"