Science Plus Fun Produce Happy 'Olympic' Results

By Dhyana Roche

Imagine 500 students from Grades 1 to 12 in one room for a whole Saturday.

It might sound like a recipe for chaos, but at this year's APEGGA-sponsored Edmonton Science Olympics, it was simply well-run fun.

The Feb. 28 event kicked off National Engineering Week.

Honorary National Engineering Week Chair Eric Newell, P.Eng., and chairman and CEO of Syncrude Canada Ltd., was on hand to observe and to present awards.

Said Mr. Newell, attending his first Science Olympics: "I think it's fantastic, what these kids do. There's nothing like discovering and learning while having fun to get kids interested.'

More than 90 school teams participated in 17 events created by teachers from Edmonton Public and Catholic Schools. They consisted of a combination of pre-announced challenges that required preparation, and mystery events that called for spontaneous problem-solving.

One event asked teams of Grades 4 to 6 to identify the greatest number of items placed under microscopes -- such as human hair, a leaf, snakeskin, a seed and a feather.

"We looked for patterns and details," explained Kelti Malone member of the winning team, Suzuki Elementary Charter School's Kids in Black. Her past experience was also an asset. "I had my own microscope and I've looked at hair and stuff."

The microscope event was probably as close as the students got to school science class. Other, more whimsical events saw "aliens" being built out of balloons and other odds and ends, a large assortment of vehicular contraptions that would make TV personality Red Green proud, a dramatically enacted forensic murder mystery, and teachers obsessively flying paper airplanes.

The Airplane Event was new this year. It is designed to occupy the teacher coaches who, come event time, aren't allowed to set foot on the floor with their teams. The teachers' delight in being allowed to spend an hour or two sailing airplanes was obvious.

The youngest students, Grades 1 to 3, built Tabloid Towers in one event. Armed with copies of the Edmonton Sun newspaper and some tape, they were to build the highest, free-standing tower they could without taping it to the floor.

The structures ranged from complicated tripods with legs of rolled newspaper, to a paper-hat-like construction built up from underneath by crumpled balls of paper.

"Well, it works," stressed one proud team member.

The Bombing Device event, for students in Grades 7 to 9, was also a big "hit".

Students were required to build a device that would travel four metres across a wire, dropping a marble "bomb" half way across.

"We had so many ideas," said one member of the Grade 8 Westmount (Junior High School) Wizards.

The final product featured a toy NASA shuttle (sacrificed in the name of science by their teacher's baby daughter), a taped-together tube and several types of elastics. "We've rigged it up so it's just the right tension," a team member explained.

As they waited, the Westmount students -- four girls and a boy -- clutched their toy shuttle nervously. Some of the devices were a lot more complex, with wheels and gears and even battery-powered engines. Together the students observed:

"The others are high-tech, but ours will work. Our teacher says it's the simplest ones that often work best."

They waited in anticipation as one team after another attached its bomber to the wire.

Parents Dave and Jo-Anna Ash were impressed with the students' inventiveness.

"I think it's great that they have to think really quickly," said Ms. Ash. "You never know what kinds of challenges they'll be faced with in life."

The number of girls competing was particularly impressive, said Mr. Newell, adding, "These are our engineers and scientists of tomorrow."

The Westmount team members got their bomber all the way across the wire and it successfully dropped its marble. In the end, though, they didn't finish in the top three.

The team's coach, teacher Darrin DeGrande, said a family emergency had kept him from helping as much as he would have liked.

"For a while, I thought we were going to have to cancel, but they worked alone on it and they worked on their holiday. They're a really nice group of kids. And it actually turned out okay."