Date February 10, 2024
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Student scientists from across New England shine at Brown Science Olympiad tournament

Aiming to spark a love for learning, the annual student-organized academic tournament invites high schoolers to showcase knowledge, skills and enthusiasm for science in a fun, competitive atmosphere.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — College Hill in Providence buzzed with energy on Saturday, Feb. 10, as young aspiring scientists flooded Brown University's classrooms and laboratories, ready to put their knowledge to the test at the 7th Annual Brown Science Olympiad tournament.

The STEM competition — organized by Brown students and hosted on the University campus each February — welcomes nearly 1,000 high schoolers from across New England. Featuring a lineup of 23 diverse challenges, the single-day academic tournament integrates written assessments with hands-on design and build tasks. Contestants immerse themselves in various scientific disciplines, from fundamental subjects like biology, chemistry and physics to specialized areas such as astronomy, forensics and robotics. Throughout the event, local students engage in a day filled with curiosity, creativity and camaraderie, exploring the marvels of science and pushing the boundaries of their intellectual prowess.

Luke Randall, a senior concentrating in geology-chemistry at Brown and director of the Brown Science Olympiad student organization, said that the practice invitational started in 2018 to offer Rhode Island teams a new opportunity to compete before the Science Olympiad state tournament, which takes place each April at Rhode Island College.

Rhode Island's Science Olympiad landscape differs from other states in that it exclusively hosts the state tournament without additional qualifying competitions. This setup, while unique, can pose challenges for local teams as they prepare for the national tournament in May, Randall said.

"With the Brown invitational, we're providing Rhode Island's Science Olympiad teams another opportunity to hone their skills before the state championship," Randall said. "Many of our local teams face challenges competing against bigger teams in the state or national tournaments. We focus on leveling the playing field, giving Rhode Island teams a dedicated space to practice and compete in a low-stakes, stress-free environment. By fostering a more competitive atmosphere in Rhode Island, we hope to inspire a greater passion for science among young students across the state."


Nurturing young minds in science

The Science Olympiad is recognized as one of the premier STEM competitions in the U.S., offering standards-based challenges to 6,000 teams across 425 tournaments in all 50 states. Established in 1984 to spark interest in science among K-12 students, the program now engages thousands of schools nationwide. In Rhode Island this year, 14 teams are participating from 11 public and independent schools across Barrington, Bristol, Burrillville, Cranston, Cumberland, East Greenwich, North Smithfield, Providence, Smithfield and Warwick.

Most schools form Science Olympiad teams as after-school clubs, where students can gather to research scientific concepts, conduct experiments, practice problem-solving and familiarize themselves with competition rules and formats to prepare for local tournaments. The programs allow students to deepen their understanding of science, develop critical skills, form new friendships and engage in competitive and collaborative learning experiences, said Sarah Chin, a senior at Cranston High School West.

"I joined Science Olympiad during my freshman year of high school because science is one of my favorite subjects, and it was an opportunity to meet more students during our distance learning period when the pandemic was still ongoing," Chin said. "I love that the Science Olympiad allows us to delve deeply into subjects we would not necessarily explore in our traditional science classes. Learning about these topics can also allow you to figure out more about yourself and what field you may want to go into after high school."

Most Brown undergraduates involved in organizing and running the Brown Science Olympiad event were former participants, said Evan MacLure, a sophomore biochemistry concentrator at Brown. Pulling off the competition successfully requires months of preparation and more than 80 student volunteers to reserve classrooms and labs, check teams in, set up equipment and materials, supervise challenges, administer tests and maintain scores.

As one of three outreach coordinators for the student group, MacLure supports teams in Providence public schools by creating study guides and sample problem sets to aid their practice sessions.

"My Science Olympiad experience was incredibly fun, and it sparked my passion for science," MacLure said. "I joined the outreach team because I want to bring that fun to more schools in Providence. By supporting them in improving their scores at events like our invitational, I hope we can generate more interest in STEM among local high schoolers and encourage more kids to join their school's club."

Empowering Rhode Island teams

Rhode Island hosts Science Olympiad state tournaments for both middle and high school teams, with top schools advancing to nationals. In December, Brown's Science Olympiad student group organized one of the state’s first invitational events for middle school teams.

The Bristol-Warren Regional School District’s Kickemuit Middle School team won the state championship in 2023. As first year students at Mt. Hope High School, the group is excited to compete in their first Division C or high school tournament, said Avery Walsh, one of the 14 team members at the high school.

"We were on the middle school team last year, competing at both states and nationals, which was a lot of fun," Walsh said. "Many of us, eighth graders last year, loved the experience so much that we're excited to compete again this year as high schoolers. While it's our first year on a Division C team, most of us have been competing together for two years and have dedicated a lot of time and effort to preparing for the Brown invitational this year. We're so excited to be here on campus."

Brown's invitational consists of 23 Science Olympiad events, created and proctored by Brown students and based on guidelines released by the national Science Olympiad organization.

In "Disease Detectives," competing teams identify causes of disease outbreaks, determine transmission modes and propose prevention measures, showcasing their grasp of epidemiology and public health concepts. Meanwhile, "Code Busters" challenges students to apply their knowledge of cryptography and demonstrate problem-solving skills to decode and encode messages. In "Wind Power," participants are tasked with designing, building and testing a device powered by wind energy. 

students weigh tower structure
Barrington High School students Yiming Xiong and Isabelle Chen weigh their tower structure in the "Tower" event before it's judged on how much weight it can hold. 

Walsh said to prepare for Brown's invitational, the Mt. Hope High School team dedicated hours each day in the weeks leading up to the early event to creating detailed study sheets using online resources offered by the national program: "We conducted trial runs for our build events, quizzed each other and completed lots of practice tests," Walsh said.  

Each event is scored individually, with points awarded based on performance, accuracy and completion of tasks. Teams win by accumulating the highest total score across all 23 events in the tournament.

At Cranston High School West, nearly 50 students participate in the Science Olympiad, which allowed the school to bring two teams to Brown's event. Henry Cheng, a senior at the high school, said the Brown Science Olympiad event serves as a valuable stepping stone, particularly for newer teammates entering the competition.

"Our school began participating in the Brown invitational last year because we recognized that we needed more experience in competing," Cheng said. "It helps us gauge where we are as a team, see where we can improve and work on our current designs." 

Shaluah Lowe, a sophomore from Cumberland High School with aspirations to work in paleontology, shares a similar sentiment. Following her participation in the "Fossils" event, a rigorous written assessment that entails navigating through 10 stations to identify and classify fossils, she emerged with newfound clarity on how best to prepare for the upcoming state tournament.

"It’s my first year doing Science Olympiad, and I wasn't sure what to expect," Lowe said. "But after today, I know exactly which subjects to research further. I know that I'll be reading more about Lagerstätte; it's a certain kind of bed where fossils are found."

But the Brown tournament isn’t just about becoming a stronger competitor. The teenagers relish the chance to roam Brown’s campus, savor a meal on bustling Thayer Street between events and forge new friendships with fellow science enthusiasts, said Ryan Golditch, a freshman from Cranston High School West.

“I’ve started to look at colleges, and with the tournament at Brown, you can also get a glimpse into college life and an understanding of the whole college experience,” Golditch said. “Science Olympiad has been a great experience because it encourages exploration beyond the standard science curriculum. We get to study fun science concepts — because science is fun, and sometimes, with a structured curriculum set in school, it’s easy to lose sight of that.”