Competition tests students' ingenuity, science know-how

By Alicia A. Caldwell
Sentinel Staff Writer

March 9, 2003

Jena McGovern decided to join a science club Monday and was told about the 2003 Florida Science Olympiad.

Six days later, the home-schooled student from Crystal River and teammate Jillian James of Longwood took first place in "The Wright Stuff" rubber-band-powered airplane contest at a statewide science competition in Orlando.

The idea was to create an airplane that could be launched by twisting a rubber band tightly around a propeller to catapult it into the air, have it fly around the Cypress Creek High School gymnasium and land on its wheels.

The contestants from 50 schools -- both middle and high schools -- were ranked by how long their planes flew. Jena's plane was aloft for more than a minute. The next-closest high-school competitor by midday Saturday was airborne for about 30 seconds.

"I just got a kit from the Internet and left out about half the sticks to make it light enough," the 14-year-old girl said of her yellow paper-and-wood plane.

Despite her apparent success, Jena lamented what could have been.

"I just wish I could have gotten as good a flight as [Friday]," she said of a trial run that lasted nearly two minutes.

Unlike many of the competition's other participants, Jena said she had only taken one introductory physics class -- it lasted a week -- when she decided to join the statewide science competition.

"The Wright Stuff" was one of 23 events in which the students competed during Saturday's Florida Science Olympiad. The competition, separated between middle- and high-school students, is designed to be fun but with an educational goal in mind, Florida Science Olympiad Director Mike McKee said.

"It all ties in with the FCAT," McKee said.

Students and their science teachers are encouraged to prepare for the competition throughout the school year, said McKee, a Cypress Creek High physics teacher.

The longer you prepare, he said, the better you are likely to fare in competition and on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Another of Saturday's events, "Qualitative Reasoning," was a bit more scientific and required that students go into a lab and use a set of chemicals to find the chemical compound of several small objects. They also had to fill out a six-question lab sheet and write out the scientific formulas that they used to get their answers. They were given 50 minutes to get it all done.

"We've designed the events in a way that we anticipate them going out of there crying," McKee said with a grin.

The tougher the competition, he said, the less likely there will be ties and perfect scores in the challenges that meet National Science Olympiad standards but with a few alterations to help keep the focus on FCAT success.

Some competitions also were altered for middle schools that participated, McKee said. Many of their challenges, he said, have less-stringent requirements or required less science knowledge.

"We want to get those kids excited about science," McKee said.

The overall winners of Saturday's competition, which were determined by points students earned in each individual event, will go on to the 20th annual National Science Olympiad at Ohio State University in May. The winners were Gulf Breeze Middle School and Gulf Breeze High School in the Panhandle.

Alicia A. Caldwell can be reached at acaldwell@orlandosentinel.com or 386-851-7924.

Copyright © 2003, Orlando Sentinel

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Vishal Patel of Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale combines chemicals in the 'Qualitative Reasoning' part of the contest.
(BOBBY COKER/ORLANDO SENTINEL)

March 9, 2003