Young scientists hone skills at Olympiad at UC Merced

MERCED -- Flung rubber balls, sturdy miniature wood towers, finely tuned electric cars, metric mastery and oceanography quizzes all were part of 23 events at the NorCal Science Olympiad on Saturday.

Students in grades six through 12 competed in categories testing their knowledge of technology, biology, chemistry, physics and earth-space science.

After five hours of competition, Arden of Sacramento won the 16-team middle school division and Mira Loma of Sacramento took home the gold among the 18 high schools. Those teams will represent Northern California at the U.S. Science Olympiad in May.

The junior high and middle schools from Stanislaus County participating Saturday were Ceres' Blaker-Kinser, Hart-Ransom and Hickman Charter. Area high schools were Central Catholic, Modesto High and Turlock High.

Hickman Charter seventh-grader Brett Martin was hoping to earn an individual medal in the biology processes lab.

"I feel comfortable with that one. It was easier than the regional (competition)," said Brett, 12. "I like the way the Science Olympiad makes you think about what you previously knew, but also infer. ... I've learned that studying never ends."

Each division could compete in 23 categories and earn a possible 253 points, said Barbara Little, Stanislaus County Office of Education program coordinator and NorCal Science Olympiad director.

The Northern California state final included 34 teams from Redding to Tulare and the Bay Area. The top three teams from each region were invited to the Northern California meeting, held at the University of California at Merced.

Events ranged from quizzes to building contraptions to making musical sounds. The trajectory competition took place in the campus quad with teams trying to pitch a rubber ball into two sandboxes. The closer each group came to the center, the more points they earned.

The event is different from other scholastic contests, such as academic decathlons or Destination Imagination, because it focuses on all categories of science, Little said. But not all team members are science brainiacs.

"The No. 1 benefit is getting students to learn the love of science," said Frank Natale, Hickman science teacher and team coach. "It gets students to believe in themselves, and we include everyone. We don't just take the 'geek' students."

Modesto High junior Shimwoo Lee said she likes the Science Olympiad because students "learn the field of sciences (they) never learn in school," such as rocks and minerals and food chemistry.

Accompanying the 15 team members from each school were coaches, volunteers and parents. Team supporters watched competitions and manned team food booths under tents across the quad.

After Mira Loma in the high school division were Palo Alto and Franklin of Sacramento. Winston Churchill of Sacramento finished second in the middle school event, followed by John Barrett of Sacramento. Hickman Charter School finished sixth.

California will send two teams in each division to the national olympiad in