May 13, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 16

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    [national science olympiad]

    Science Olympians to compete on Saturday

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    The home of the first controlled nuclear chain reaction has become a site for the 1999 National Science Olympiad, an academic, interscholastic competition for high school and junior high students. The University will serve as the venue for 36 competitive events and the closing ceremony on Saturday, May 15.

    The Olympiad, from Thursday, May 13, through Saturday, May 15, is hosted by the University and the Field Museum, along with the Adler Planetarium, Museum of Science and Industry and Shedd Aquarium. This year, more than 2,000 of the nation’s best science students from 44 states and Canada will compete in the Olympiad. These sixth-through 12th-grade students represent 108 teams.

    “This is outreach of the very best kind,” said Sidney Nagel, tournament co-director and the University’s Louis Block Professor in Physics. “We care deeply about science and scientific research here, and we care about the future of the field. Our hope is to spread our enthusiasm to these fine students and that they will spread it to their schools and communities. This is one of the ways that we can make a difference for science education literacy in this country.

    “This is one of the first times we’ve had such an extensive collaboration with all of these wonderful museums. We hope it is a portent of good things for the future and will create stronger bonds between these institutions,” Nagel added.

    Events at the University will take place just steps from the buildings where some of the historic Manhattan Project research was conducted. The effort by Enrico Fermi and his international team of scientists to produce the first controlled nuclear chain reaction successfully culminated on Dec. 2, 1942, on a squash racquets court underneath the west stands of old Stagg Field.

    Olympiad competitors will demonstrate their knowledge of science, mathematics and technology as well as problem-solving skills and teamwork while competing in a wide variety of events. Eight events on the University campus are open to the public, including bottle rockets, in which contestants fly rockets made from two-liter plastic pop bottles, and trajectory, in which students use devices of their own creation to launch tennis balls into a target area of sand.

    Teams attain a spot in the national tournament by winning local, regional and state events. This year’s representatives include perennial powerhouse Booth Middle School from Peachtree City, Ga.––competing in its 10th consecutive National Science Olympiad––and Sarracino Middle School in Soccoro, N.M., which is making its first trip to the national tournament.

    “More than anything else, Science Olympiad was where I could apply what I was doing in the classroom,” said Mark Jeunnette, a second-year student in computer science at the University who competed in the national tournament from 1994 to 1996. “It gave me a little more incentive to learn the material, to be prepared for the tests, or to learn the physics or the chemistry that I was applying in the construction events or in the labs.”

    Jeunnette’s former team, New Mexico’s Albuquerque Academy, is making its sixth consecutive trip to the national tournament this year. A member of the University’s cross country and track teams, Jeunnette said competitors experience intense pressure both in academic and athletic contests. “I get into the same sort of mindset, where I’m focused on competing and more or less oblivious to everything else around,” he said.

    Frayed nerves and high tensions also are common at the national tournament. “It really depends on the team. Some schools are there to win or to do really well. Then there are teams that are just happy to be there. I think that they, in a way, get the most out of the event because they’re able to step back a little bit,” he said.

    More information is available at the 1999 National Science Olympiad Chicago Web page: http://www.nso99.uchicago.edu. For more information about the tournament or about working as a volunteer, call (773) 834-3008.