By Dr. Gerard J. Putz and Jenny Kopach (from American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Today)
If you’re visiting a college campus on a Saturday in March, you might be surprised to find it crawling with packs of 12- to 18-year-olds in goggles and lab coats, hurrying from one building to the next. These industrious kids aren’t early college students: They’re team members from Science Olympiad, one of the largest, oldest and most prestigious science, technology, engineering and math after-school programs in the country.
Just like a football team, these Science Olympians practice weekly (if not daily), hone their skills and prepare to demonstrate their aptitude against equally matched peers. And to the victors go the spoils — medals, trophies, scholarships and rewards for achievement that in many cases carry scientific interest from classroom to career.
SCIENCE OLYMPIAD IN BRIEF
Science Olympiad is a national nonprofit organization founded in 1984 and dedicated to improving the quality of K – 12 science, technology, engineering and math education, increasing interest in science among all students, creating a technologically literate workforce and providing recognition for outstanding achievement by both students and teachers.Modeling athletic teams, the Science Olympiad teams prepare throughout the year for tournaments. There are three divisions of competition:
Division A: grades K – 6
Division B: grades 6 – 9
Division C: grades 9 – 12
Science Olympiad tournaments (350 annually) consist of 23 team events and are 100 percent aligned to the National Science Education Standards. Each of the 6,400 U.S. teams (roughly 200,000 students) participates in events that require a variety of skills including research and study, lab work and experimentation, and design and construction of devices.
A tall but doable order
The educational landscape is well-populated with single-discipline K – 12 STEM competitions, but Science Olympiad is unique in that it combines all the major science specialties, including life sciences, chemistry, physics, engineering, Earth and space science, and inquiry.
In the fall 2012 issue of the Enzymatic newsletter, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Undergraduate Affiliate Network Chairwoman Marilee Benore underscored a common problem facing K – 12 education: Students often pursue science with little knowledge of the options open to those with scientific knowledge and training.
The solution? Have students interact with working professionals in Science Olympiad settings. Inspiring students to follow college and career paths into biochemistry and molecular biology is a tall order, but once they see how their event preparation connects with your real-world experience, they will begin to see themselves following the same path (see chart).
By collaborating with Science Olympiad students, you can educate students and teachers about common BMB topics found in Science Olympiad events, illustrate BMB concepts that may seem complex to middle- and high-school students, and advocate for college majors and careers in BMB.
A step beyond show and tell
Many students are aware of current events with links to the biochemistry and molecular biology world — the chemistry of the teenage brain, cancer research that affects their families, the story of Henrietta Lacks’ HeLa cells (required reading in some high schools now), food safety in school lunches and the political stem-cell debate.
Science Olympiad events are exemplary models of real-world applications of science and the STEM careers offered on each path. For instance, Science Olympiad has worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 1999 on the Disease Detectives event. Within the CDC, scientists were charged with creating K – 12 workforce-development outreach programs that would add to the pool of eligible STEM professionals. Covering topics like pandemics, disease outbreaks, food-borne illness and resulting effects on population, the CDC found that the Science Olympiad Disease Detectives event is an effective way to motivate students to investigate careers in epidemiology.
Similarly, the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Center for BioMolecular Modeling worked with Science Olympiad to develop the cutting-edge Protein Modeling event for high-school participants. In this event, students use computer visualization and online resources to guide them in constructing physical models of proteins and learn about how protein structure affects its function. This event is linked to current and relevant topics for student engagement, and national winners receive generous scholarships to the engineering school.
The ASBMB member perspective
ASBMB member Shannon Colton, a program director at the Center for BioMolecular Modeling, says Science Olympiad events have helped the engineering school engage more than 9,000 high-school students.
“The students are excited to be on the cutting edge of science, and educators appreciate a new topic to connect the real world of science with what the students are learning,” Colton says. “Team coaches welcome assistance from experts, and we encourage ASBMB members to reach out and make connections. We have found that working with high-school students reignites our passion for this work and reminds us why we chose this route initially.”
Many students are motivated to follow a direct career path once they’ve been successful in Science Olympiad events.
Case in point: Emily Briskin, a sophomore at Yale University. Briskin participated in the Disease Detectives and Microbe Mission events, was a gold medalist on her Centerville High School Science Olympiad team and attended President Obama’s White House Science Fair in October 2010. Today she’s studying molecular, cellular and developmental biology, along with French. “I am interested in global health and microbial disease, and I hope to eventually get my master’s in public health and perhaps work at the CDC. I am involved in Community Health Educators, a group that goes into middle-school classrooms to discuss important public health topics.”
Science Olympiad provides an organized and meaningful volunteer activity for scientists in every U.S. state. Simply align your talents with the appropriate grade level and degree of involvement, reach out to the school coach or Science Olympiad state or tournament director, and you’ll be making a difference before you know it. You can tailor your volunteerism and outreach to your region, your position and your schedule:
- • UAN members on college campuses can volunteer at Science Olympiad tournaments or with teams.
- • More experienced ASBMB members can serve as Science Olympiad team mentors in their communities or at Science Olympiad tournaments and can contribute content.
Another plus: As Science Olympiad is an after-school program, it does not compete with teachers’ limited daily instructional time or with district curriculum requirements.
For more information about public outreach opportunities, contact Geoff Hunt at email@example.com.
Gerard J. Putz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the president and co-founder of Science Olympiad. Jenny Kopach (email@example.com) is the vice-president of marketing communication and a national executive board member of Science Olympiad.