Authored by Dan Lea, student in Assistant Professor Kate Edenborg’s ENGL 407: Seminar in Applied Journalism class in the professional communications and emerging media program.
When more than 2,000 high school and middle school students head home from the Science Olympiad National Tournament, to be held at the University of Wisconsin-Stout May 18 through 21; some will be toting trophies, but all will leave with a little more knowledge. The judges of the 39 events won’t just enforce the rules, they’ll also make sure the teams learn something from the experience.
“The real value, we think, is the teachable moment,” said Greg Marconnet, event supervisor for the Olympiad’s bridge event. Marconnet oversees the event at both the national tournament and the Wisconsin state tournament, which was held at UW-Stout on April 2. His Wisconsin-based team’s efficient routine has put them in high demand for Science Olympiad events throughout the year.
In the bridge event, each team builds a bridge structure from which a bucket is then suspended. Sand is poured into the bucket until the bridge fails or the maximum weight of 15 kilograms has been reached. The team’s score for the event is calculated by dividing the weight held by the weight of the bridge. The goal is to build the lightest bridge that will hold the most weight. After the test, Marconnet and the other judges help the students review what went right and what didn’t.
“You just broke your bridge, and you’re really wondering why,” said Marconnet, who works as an engineer for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After Marconnet guides the teams through the testing process, he sends them to see Steve Dean of Chippewa Falls, who shows them a video of their bridge in action.
“We can actually watch the devices fail in slow motion,” said Dean, who, in his day job, is chief engineer at SGI, a computer company in Chippewa Falls.
“It enables the kids to see the first point of failure,” Dean said. “That usually tells them where the weak spot in the bridge was and it’s the critical thing for them to learn how to change or adjust their design for the future.” Working at a few regional tournaments each year, plus the state and national tournaments, Dean sees some teams several times a year over the course of their entire middle and high school careers.
“It’s really amazing to see how they learn and what they’re capable of doing over time,” Dean said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
It will be a shorter trip than usual for Marconnet, Dean and the rest of their crew, now in their sixth year of judging the bridge event. They usually have to travel to another state for the national tournament.
The judging team is a family affair, including three married couples. Greg’s wife, Donna, downloads and edits the high-speed videos, which are used both for review and to entertain spectators on large video screens. Steve’s wife, Carol, checks students in and makes sure the structures are compliant with the rules. Kelley Owen of Menomonie also checks students in, while her husband, Jack, runs a second test table. Mike Scott, another SGI engineer, has joined in this year to help critique the teams and speed the process along.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a team of engineers functions like a well-oiled machine.
If you think a Science Olympiad wouldn’t make much of a spectator event, UW-Stout Biology Chair, Dr. Steven Nold, says you should think again.
“There are a lot of the build events that are very much worth going to,” said Nold, who served as tournament director for the state event. “They fly airplanes, they build cars, they launch projectiles…a really fun bunch of things to see. I highly recommend coming to UW-Stout to see it.”
It takes around 250 volunteers to put on the Science Olympiad tournament. Nold said the national tournament is usually held at a much larger, prestigious research university. He said the credit for attracting the major event to UW-Stout should go to chemistry professor Forrest Schultz, who will serve as national tournament director.
“It’s a huge honor and a privilege to be able to offer this here at our school,” Nold said. “It’s just a huge feather in our cap.”