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The Ultimate Guide to Science Olympiad

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Are you a student looking to expand your scientific knowledge in a competitive setting? Or perhaps looking to be a part of a team that doesn’t involve athletics? Science Olympiad offers all of this and more. Whether you’re a seasoned competitor looking for some extra tips or you’re totally new to Science Olympiad, below you’ll find a guide to the basics of competition and how to succeed as a Science Olympian.



What is Science Olympiad?



Science Olympiad is a STEM competition in which teams of 15 students compete in 23 events from various scientific fields, such as Anatomy and Physiology, Tower Building, Rocks and Minerals, Forensics, and more. Events can generally be separated into three categories: Study, Build, and Lab.



Study events are straightforward: you take a written exam on a specific subject matter. Build events require you to design and construct a structure that will either perform a specific action (ex. robot picking up a pencil), maximize its function given a set of parameters (a wooden bridge that can hold the maximum load while minimizing bridge mass), or showcase both your technical and creative skills (build an instrument and perform a song on it). Lab events involve conducting experiments along with answering conceptual questions. Regardless of the premise, all events require extensive preparation beforehand.



Science Olympiad operates at a regional, state, and national level. Depending on the number of teams per region, some states do not hold regional competitions and go straight to the state competition. The number of teams that advance from regionals to states is proportional to the total number of teams in the region; more competitive regions tend to have more teams, which means more will advance to the state competition. Each state sends one team to the national competition; exceptions are made for especially competitive states, which are allowed to send two teams.



Many high schools and colleges also host invitational tournaments, which while not affiliated with the official organization, serve as valuable opportunities to practice for events and experience the competition setting early on in the year.



The organization splits students into three divisions: elementary students participate in Division A, middle school students compete in Division B, and high school students compete in Division C. Division B allows up to five 9th graders to compete on the 15 person team, while Division C limits the number of seniors on the team to seven. This is done in the interest of keeping teams as fair as possible given different schooling structures across the country.



How can I get involved?


Joining a Team


Many schools have well-established teams already; if that is the case for your school, go to an interest meeting and find out how the team is run (see below). Depending on the caliber of your Science Olympiad program, your school may be regular powerhouses at nationals, or just starting out and aiming to make the state competition. Regardless, the earlier in the year you express interest and get to work, the more likely it is you will earn a spot on the competing team.



Starting a Team


If your school does not have a team, consider starting one! To start, you’ll need a teacher to sponsor you and/or to serve as a coach. The teacher’s involvement in the team can vary greatly; some teams rely heavily on the teacher to be a coach that does everything from determining the structure of the team to overseeing practices. On the other hand, many successful teams have been student-driven, with the teacher acting mainly as a figurehead who signs forms and takes care of logistics. When you approach a teacher to sponsor your team, make sure you know how big (or small) of a role the teacher will play; that will determine how much work you have to dedicate to building the team from the ground up.



Do I have to be a prospective STEM major to participate?


Absolutely not! Although most students who do Science Olympiad tend to go into a STEM field once they enter college, Science Olympiad alumni have also gone on to study economics, political science, literature, and more. Although Science Olympiad is largely centered on science, it is also a unique bonding experience in which you learn about the importance of teamwork, the creativity of your peers (and yourself), and the value of hard work.



How are teams structured?



The national organization’s only requirement is that each team has a maximum of 15 competitors. After that, it’s entirely up to the team members and coaches as to how to divide up the 23 events.



Most events allow up to two team members to compete, but there are certain events, such as Experimental Design and Protein Modeling, that allow up to three students due to the high volume of work anticipated during the competition. Given this structure, most students who end up being a part of 15 competitors will compete in 3-5 events, although it is possible to do more (or less).



It’s crucial that you have a well-rounded team in regards to the types of events people are working on. Having an entire team of stellar builders will only get you so far if there are no solid test takers.



When assembling a team, another important thing to keep in mind is that all events must be covered during all competitions, which requires taking potential scheduling conflicts into account. At least one person should be on each event, because not participating in any event means an automatic last place in that event, which can hurt your team’s score significantly.



With all that in mind, how do you select the competing 15? Well, some Science Olympiad clubs only have about 15students; in this case, it’s relatively easy to decide who will be part of the competing 15 based on how many and what type of events each person has been preparing for. However, there are many schools that have more than 15 students interested in being a part of Science Olympiad. In order to select the competing 15, there are often “tryouts” held a few months before the first official competition of the year to determine who will be on the team.



Tryouts can be run in a variety of ways, but as a prospective competitor, keep in mind two things: just like a good college application, you should have one or two particular strengths that will make you stand out and a unique and needed asset to the team. However, you also want to be well-rounded, because if everyone only specialized in one or two events, there will be many gaps in the overall team structure.



Once the team is assembled, alternates will be chosen. In addition to taking the place of one of the competitors if something happens, alternates also have the chance to compete in trial events, which are events that may become part of the official 23 events in the future. This is a valuable opportunity to gain competitive experience, as well as prepare for what will likely be coming the following year, helping you secure a spot as one of the competing 15.



How to prepare for events:



Approaches vary greatly from event to event, but they have one thing in common: a very detailed set of rules that must be strictly adhered to, both on the part of the competitors and the event supervisors. This means that first and foremost, you should carefully read the rules, multiple times; they will not only provide a starting point for studying or building, but also give you a good idea of what to expect during the competition, because event supervisors are not allowed to test you on anything outside of these rules.



After reading the rules, you can find useful resources on the national website or the student-run forum. While both can aid in your preparation, you should not rely on them as your only sources of information.



Tips for study events:

  • After reading the rules and getting an idea of what kinds of questions you may be asked, decide on the best way to prepare for these questions. For example, if you are preparing for an event in which you are given a list of organisms you must be able to identify, make flashcards. For events that align closely to classes you may be taking, such as anatomy and physiology, reading the textbook would be a great place to start.


  • Remember that most, if not all, study events allow you to bring resources in the form of note sheets, binders, and field guides. As you go along in your studying, start compiling hard to remember facts, diagrams, and anything else that would be useful to have during the competition when you are crunched for time. This way, by the end of your studying you will have at least a draft of your note sheet to work with rather than starting from scratch. The draft will also reflect which parts you had trouble with while studying, serving as a good guide for the last few days of review.


  • Be smart about what you include; for single note sheets, don’t waste space writing down facts you’ve already memorized; use it instead for diagrams, graphs, and other things that can be easily referred to. For binders, organization is key; this is another reason why assembling it as you study is helpful, because you’ll naturally learn the layout of the binder and will not waste precious time flipping through it excessively during competition.



Tips for lab events:

  • Familiarize yourself with all the possible lab equipment and chemical compounds they may ask you to use during the competition. The equipment may be provided to you during the competition, or you will have to bring it yourself. Regardless, try to have as much available as possible to practice with, so that you are prepared for whatever you may encounter during the competition.


  • Between the two competitors for each lab event, decide who will be in charge of each task. Unlike study events, where both people are answering questions, or a build event where both people are operating and tweaking one build structure, lab events have multiple things going on, often at the same time. Splitting up tasks, such as who will be analyzing powders and who will answer the conceptual questions, will help you maximize the amount you can get done during a competition.



Tips for build events:

  • Start by brainstorming ideas for designs with your peers; each person has varying strengths and can contribute insights that will go towards making the best design possible.


  • If different team members have different ideas about which design will work best, have each person build their own design and test them all out. In fact, this often produces the best result, because testing various designs rather than only one design will help pinpoint more ways to improve.


  • Make sure that you do not wait until the last second (or even the last few weeks) to start building; perfecting each structure requires a lot of troubleshooting, which can take even longer than the building process itself, so be sure to allot time for this. Some events also require that you keep a log of your trials with the structure that you will eventually be using during the competition, which is another reason to have the structure prepared well ahead of time.



Remember, refer to the rules handbook whenever you are unsure about a specification; these rules are the final verdict for any disputes during a competition, so if you adhere to them in the first place, you don’t have to worry about running into trouble and possibly getting disqualified.



The night before a competition:


  • Get a good night’s sleep. Although some teams like to pull all-nighters the night before a competition for one last study session, you should try to sleep at least a little before walking into your first event. Many competitions start running events as early as 8:30AM, at which point you’ve already been up for hours between traveling to the competition venue (usually a local high school or college), impounding your robots or towers for build events, and finding your way around the different classrooms. Although waking up early may seem like no big deal given how early high schools start each day, remember that the competition usually runs until 3pm, and then the awards ceremony can take another few hours, meaning you’ll have to stay awake and alert until as late as 7pm. You don’t want to accidentally fall asleep while your name is being called for a first place medal.


  • Make sure you have all of your materials packed. Each event’s rule sheet specifically lists what you are allowed to bring to the competition:

-For study events, this means field guides, binders, exact number of note sheets per student or team, and any other tools that will aid in answering the questions on the test (rulers, magnifying glasses, etc.).

-For lab events, this means goggles, calculators, and any number of instruments normally found in a lab (spatulas, pH paper, funnels, test tubes, thermometers, etc.)

-For build events, this means your actual structure, and any back up materials to supplement your structure’s performance, or materials that can be used to mend your structure in case it becomes damaged on the day of the competition.



Regardless of what type of event you are competing in, be absolutely certain that you have all the correct materials and in the quantity specified. Something as minor as bringing the wrong type of chemical splash goggles can be grounds for disqualification, and something like bringing one note sheet per student when the rules specified one note sheet per team can be a serious hindrance if you were counting on the information from both sheets.



Also check to make sure all your building structures have been packed safely, so that when you carry them onto the bus next day they won’t be damaged hours before the competition begins.


  • Wear comfortable clothing and shoes. Be prepared to run from event to event, especially if the competition is held on a college campus.


  • Communicate with your teammates. Given that each event has its own set of materials that will be crucial to the event’s success, and you will have a partner for each event, you need to check in with multiple people to make sure all the materials that need to be brought have been accounted for. A few weeks before the competition, make a list together with each of your partners and discuss who will bring which items. Do another check the week of the competition, and one last check the night before the competition to make absolute certain each event has been fully covered materials-wise.


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Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor

Short Bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.