UNCW Hosts Wilmington Regional Science Olympiad

Monday, March 12, 2018

On a sunny Saturday morning just right for taking it easy, nearly 1,200 students arrived at Trask Coliseum and other UNCW buildings to test their mettle in the Wilmington Regional Science Olympiad. Representing 15 high schools and 28 middle schools in five southeastern North Carolina counties, some carried with them flying machines, Battery Buggies, Ping-pong Parachutes and towers built of wood pieces no bigger than a matchstick. Others would compete with only ingenuity and the knowledge in their heads.

Students from Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover and Pender counties competed in the March 10 event. Teams claimed sections of the stands in Trask Coliseum, led by teachers who voluntarily added hours to already-long weeks to help the innovators of tomorrow prepare to amaze.

UNCW and the New Hanover County Schools organize the annual competition, whose winners go on to the state Science Olympiad in Raleigh, and participation continues to grow to the point that the middle schools competed on a split schedule this year.

“Our region is as large as Raleigh and Charlotte, which shows the strength of what we do,” said Dennis Kubasko, UNCW associate professor of secondary science education, who is serving his last year as co-director of the regional Science Olympiad. He said the UNCW Center for Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, which has long been involved in planning the event, will take the lead next year.

More than 150 volunteers devoted an entire day to work with the students, including UNCW students, faculty, staff and retirees, as well as parents, community members, Corning employees and a sizeable contingent from GE.

“This is the most positive event I participate in every year,” said retired associate professor of environmental studies Bob Cutting. He said the goal is to be well organized so that the event is fun and fulfilling for the participants, parents and the volunteers.

As for the students, they were focused on making their best impression, and perseverance was in ample supply.

Applause marked successes in some spectator events, in which high-flying contraptions soared, homemade cars and conveyer belts whirred and skinny towers were tested with heavier and heavier weight until they broke. Quieter celebrations were the rule with events involving analyzing a problem or displaying knowledge of a specific subject.

Ai Ning Loh, associate professor of oceanography, has volunteered for three of the four years she has been at UNCW. Why give up a beautiful Saturday during spring break?

“I think it’s really important that we support these young scientists in this endeavor,” said Loh, who was supervising “Dynamic Planet.”

But as in all competitions, mishaps were inevitable. Battery connections failed, plastic-bag “parachutes” didn’t always perform as planned and a paper-thin glider that soared for more than a minute in practice sank to the ground in a mere six seconds.

“We had it working really well yesterday, but we burned a circuit,” said Laney High School ninth-grader Luke Mueller. He and junior varsity team member Cody Curran were scrambling to get their conveyer belt to perform correctly before it was their turn to compete.

As an eighth-grade teacher and Science Olympiad coach at Williston Middle School, Bobby Garcia said he wants his students to realize that perfection rarely comes without trial and error.

“It’s OK to fail, because through those failures, we are able to learn,” he said.

But for those who succeeded, medals were the prize, along with scholarships for some students.

North Carolina Science Olympiad Executive Director Kim Gervase was monitoring four regional competitions Saturday, but she chose to be at UNCW in person and voiced her appreciation for the enthusiastic help from UNCW, the volunteers and participating schools.

The annual event embodies UNCW’s commitment to community engagement and attracting high-quality, diverse students, as outlined in the Strategic Plan. Many of the young participants said they already were considering UNCW as an option for college.

Statewide, participation is Science Olympiad is increasing, and so is interest in STEM careers, Gervase said.

“The reason the program has grown is that we have a huge elementary school program in each of these counties,” she said. Similarly, a survey of Science Olympiad alumni found a strong correlation between participation in the annual science competition and choosing a STEM major in college. Many of the alumni answering the survey said Science Olympiad allowed them to explore something new without fear of hurting their grade point average, Gervase added.

-- Tricia Vance