Sis-Boom-Botany! Science Olympaid puts STEM education in the game

February 14, 2012

In 1983, a small group of Michigan high school teachers adopted the ethos of varsity athletics -- challenge, competition, teamwork and reward -- to encourage and inspire standards-based science education. From a grassroots movement to a national presence with 6,200 teams in 50 states, Science Olympiad has since grown into the premier science competition in the nation.

On Monday, March 5, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, will host the regional Science Olympiad competition for the first time. Middle and high school teams from 24 northwestern Pennsylvania schools will spend the day on campus to compete in individual and team events in the fields of biology, earth science, chemistry, engineering, physics and computing in hopes of becoming one of the 120 teams to qualify for the 2012 National Tournament to be held at University of Central Florida in May.

Science Olympiad teams of up to 15 students per school work in advance on the 23 challenges they’ll be presented with on March 5. “Whether building a robot arm or a homemade musical instrument or studying the cosmos and the evolution of a star, most schools have been planning for their events since August,” said Paul Ashcraft, competition coordinator and lecturer in physics at Penn State Behrend. “Science Olympiad allows students to compete against their most talented peers from other schools. It’s great to see our next generation so excited about science, and many Science Olympics alumni tell us that it was these competitions that led them to pursue careers in what we call the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.”

Examples from the 2012 Science Olympiad event list include:

Compute This Teams are presented with a problem that requires quantitative data capture from a website (this year, the Center for Disease Control at followed by presentation of that data in a graphical format.

Disease Detective Students will be required to apply principles of epidemiology to a published report of a real-life food borne illness situation.

Fermi Questions A science-related question that requires a rough estimate of a quantity that is difficult or impossible to measure directly, for example, "how many drops of water are there in Lake Erie?" Answers will be estimated within an order of magnitude recorded in powers of 10.

Forensics Students will identify polymers, solids, fibers, and other materials in a crime-scene scenario.

Mousetrap Vehicle Teams will design, build and test a vehicle that uses one mousetrap as its sole means of propulsion. The vehicle is expected to reach a target as quickly, accurately and as close to its predicted time as possible.

Sounds of Music Prior to the competition, students will build two different instruments of any type based on a 12-tone tempered scale. At the competition, the team must describe the principles behind the instruments’ operation and be able to perform a major scale, a required melody and a chosen melody with each instrument.

Write It/Do It A technical writing exercise. One team writes the description of a contraption; another team attempts to recreate it using only the written description.

The schools participating in the 2012 regional competition at Penn State Behrend are Brookville Area Jr.-Sr. High School, Clarion Area High School, Clarion-Limestone High School, DuBois Area High School, Franklin Area High School, Kane Area High School, Kittanning High School, Laurel Jr.-Sr. High School, Maplewood Jr.-Sr. High School, Neshannock Senior High School, North Clarion High School, North East Middle School, North East High School, Northwestern Middle School, Oil City Middle School, Oil City High School, Perseus House Charter School of Excellence, Redbank Valley Jr.-Sr. High School, Ridgway High School, Seneca High School, Venango Catholic High School, Wattsburg Middle School, Wilmington Area Middle School, and Wilmington Area High School.

For additional information about the Science Olympiad competition at Penn State Behrend, phone Ashcraft at 814-898-7268 or email

Click here to learn more about the Pennsylvania Science Olympiad. For information on the national program, click here.

  • IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated February 15, 2012