Midtown Raleigh News

Competition at Science Olympiad is top-flight

Winning at the N.C. Science Olympiad’s State Tournament is getting tougher and tougher, as the number of teams continues to grow each year.

About 200 middle and high school teams competed in Saturday’s state tournament at N.C. State University’s Reynolds Coliseum. Almost a decade ago there were 93 teams.

In order to stay ahead of the curve, champions Enloe High School and Raleigh Charter High School, which placed first and second at Saturday’s tournament, have turned to recruiting “builders,” or student-engineers.

When Kalyani Tawade took over as Enloe’s coach three years ago, she knew she needed students who were willing to tackle challenges like engineering a miniature aircraft or making cranes that can hold up to 30 pounds.

It’s not enough to be good at memorizing facts and taking tests, she said. Now, students need to be able to solve problems and think outside the box to find solutions.

With a chance at the national championship at the University of Florida on May 16-17 on the line, every point matters, coaches said. Only the top two middle and high schools get to go to nationals.

“It used to be you could score in 10th place (in challenges) and still make it to nationals,” said Whit Hames, the head coach at Raleigh Charter. “Now with so many teams, if you don’t always make at least sixth, you are not going to make it.”

Raleigh Charter made it to nationals about nine of the past 14 years, he said. Tawade and Hames said the key to success is having student-led teams. The teens are invested in their decisions and work harder. “I believe in student empowerment with my guidance,” Hames said. “I build an environment where they can go for it.”

About a third of the 46-trophy qualifying events are building events. The others require students to take written and practical exams. The Science Olympiad works much like a track meet. Students work in teams of 15 and compete in challenges. Coming in first scores a “1,” a boon in a system where the lowest score wins.

In the end, points from each event are tabulated into an overall team score.

A statewide emphasis on STEM programs, or science, technology, engineering and math, has led to the surge in teams, said Olympiad organizers. The NC State Olympiad started its own elementary program in 2009, and that has helped build awareness.

“I’m hearing from schools that I’ve never heard from before who want to start a program because their students had it at the elementary school level,” said Executive Director Kim Gervase. “I get calls from moms saying, ‘My son doesn’t have this at his school and he filed the paperwork on his own to start one.’ ”

The competition to make the teams is also tough. Students typically find themselves having to try out. Sriya Kongala, 13, and teammate Sophia Luo, 14, both from Raleigh’s Fred J. Carnage Middle School, were chosen out of a pool of about 90 students to get on the team.

“You have to be proactive, you have to find your own resources,” Luo said. “When you win the feeling is just so amazing.”

Although Raleigh schools dominated the high-school level of the competition, at the middle-school level, Charlotte schools won. They were Piedmont IB, which placed first, and Jay M. Robinson.