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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Science competition hosted by Science Olympiad at UC Davis draws hundreds of high schoolers

Aggie Invitational featured over 20 events across various disciplines

Over 600 students from a variety of Northern California high schools visited UC Davis to put their scientific knowledge to the test at last month’s Aggie Invitational competition. There were 23 events with themes ranging from anatomy and protein modeling to astronomy and ornithology. Students competed in pursuit of the overall first place prize, which was claimed by one of Mountain View High School’s two teams.

The invitational, held in buildings across campus on Jan. 25, was organized by the student organization Science Olympiad at UC Davis. The competition serves as a warm-up for high school students to prepare for upcoming regional, state and nationwide Science Olympiad competitions.

“We wanted to bring a Science Olympiad competition to UC Davis to give these high schoolers that opportunity to see the events, how they play out, so they’re prepared for regionals,” said Chad Mowers, the co-president of Science Olympiad and a third-year physics and mathematics major. “And it’s also just a really fun experience, too.”

The Science Olympiad hosts annual competitions, but the invitational was the first of its kind at UC Davis. Mowers formed the academic club at the beginning of Fall Quarter 2019 with co-president Claire Chapman, a third-year global disease biology major. Chapman competed with Mowers on their high school Science Olympiad team and said she and Mowers were inspired by their experience at the Golden Gate Invitational, which was co-hosted by Stanford and UC Berkeley.

“If Berkeley can do it, then why can’t we?” Chapman asked. “We forget that for high school students it’s very special to come to a university. It’s huge — they maybe haven’t started visiting them yet, so they were really excited by the fact that it’s UC Davis.”

The day’s events kicked off at 8 a.m. and continued until 3 p.m. Some of the invitational’s events were open to the public, such as the Boomilever and Gravity Vehicle engineering competitions in Kemper Hall and the Wright Stuff airplane-building challenge in the ARC Pavilion.

While the Science Olympiad team was tabulating scores, “Secrets of the Universe,” a new film spotlighting UC Davis physics Professor Manuel Calderón de la Barca Sánchez and his work, was shown. The film explores Sánchez’s collaboration with other scientists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. Ken Burtis, the faculty advisor to the chancellor and provost, also spoke at the awards ceremony about opportunities for youth in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The event drew over 40 teams from 26 high schools, so it required a significant amount of preparation on the part of Science Olympiad. Chapman and Mowers reached out to Science Olympiad alumni, friends and science enthusiasts to assemble a larger group of team members and volunteers. Serena Kutney, a third-year chemical engineering major, helped run the Machines event, which challenged students to build measuring devices capable of finding a ratio between the weights of two objects.

“I had never seen homemade machines like theirs before, and some of them measured so accurately,” Kutney said via email. “It was fun interacting with these high schoolers who were invested in the event and were so bright.”

Events testing other skills besides science and technology were included in the mix as well. Kendra Goudie, a Tokay High School student from Lodi, California, participated in a communication challenge called “Write It Do It.” 

“‘Write It Do It’ is an interesting one because it’s more of the science of communication and language,” Goudie said. “You are given an object and a creation, and you have to write it down and describe how to create it piece-by-piece. And then it’s given to a person in another room and they have to create it from your instructions.”

Some high school student participants found the invitational to be both challenging and a valuable learning experience.

“It was an eye-opener,” said Isaac Nguyen, a first-time Science Olympiad participant from Albany High School who competed in the Forensics and Circuit Lab events. “I was not prepared — definitely not.”

Even so, Nguyen is among those planning to participate in future Science Olympiad competitions.

“I want to do it again next year,” Goudie said. “I’ve always wanted to continue doing it. There’s been some hard years and hard events, and you kind of get discouraged. There’s other times where you do really good and it’s really encouraging.”

UC Davis students interested in getting involved with the planning process of future invitationals are always welcome, according to Mowers and Chapman.

“A good portion of people don’t have Science Olympiad experience, so they just like science or like education, and it’s worked out really well,” Chapman said. “We put them on events that they’re interested in because a lot of the events correlate with majors here.”

Written by: Daniel Erenstein — science@theaggie.org 

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