I sat nervously in my seat as the bus driver skillfully navigated the streets of Amsterdam. Our tour guide was exceptionally good, but not even her impressive facts and charming Dutch accent could hold my attention.
As my classmates scrambled to take pictures, I sat with my flip-phone open, driving the person next to me crazy with my incessant foot tapping. I pored over the text messages my mom had sent me in an effort to tally up the score in my head— “Astronomy, bronze…ecology, silver…anatomy, gold.” It was close, too close.
Meanwhile, in France, three other members of Randolph’s Science Olympiad team were also huddled around a cell phone, waiting in anticipation. After what seemed like an eternity, my phone suddenly buzzed with a new message. It read: “Final event. Ornithology, gold… You are going to Wisconsin!” In a surge of excitement, I jumped up from my seat, fist-pumped the air, and shouted “YES!” Those nearby looked at me like I was crazy.
Recovering from my outburst, I quickly explained to them that our Science Olympiad team just won the State Competition, earning us a berth in the National Competition at the University of Wisconsin.
Ordinarily, there is no way I would ever miss a Science Olympiad competition, let alone the State Championship. In the past, my teammates and I had competed despite conflicts such as papers being due, imminent tests, other academic competitions, and sports events. So when we won the Regional Competition at UAH, we were crushed when our coach, Mrs. McMichens, told us that the state competition schedule had been changed, and it would coincide with the latter part of Randolph’s Interim week. Four members of the team, including myself, would still be on trips in Europe. Payments had been made, flights had been booked; there was no way around it. Thus, in the weeks leading up to the State competition, we worked tirelessly training other members of the team in order to patch up the holes in our roster.
Competing in the National Competition presented a different set of challenges for the team. The weekend before Second Semester Exams is a valuable time for the Upper School student. It is a time of rest, a time of study, a time of composure before the last academic marathon of the year. This weekend also happened to be Senior Graduation. Competing in Wisconsin would be a huge commitment that meant forgoing all of the above. Yet for 14 of us in Grades 9-11, this was a no-brainer.
“Nationals is totally worth failing finals,” we joked. For the seniors, however, missing their graduation ceremony was a harder decision. In the past, we had competed at Nationals seniorless, but this year’s dedicated bunch wavered considerably. In the end, one senior, Teja Alapati, decided that National Science Olympiad was worth missing his senior graduation.
We felt like celebrities as we arrived in the airport of Madison, Wisconsin. Signs all over the airport welcomed the arrival of Science Olympiad competitors from all over the country, raising questions from other curious travelers. From the airport we took a bus (with the New York team) to the University of Wisconsin dorm rooms. Getting to stay in college dorms is one of my favorite parts of going to Nationals. The dorms at the 2010 National Competition (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) are my only other point of reference, but I was blown away by the spacious rooms of UW-Madison. As we continued to look around, we also discovered that each floor had several lounges, great for both group studying and socializing.
After settling in, we later went to our respective “Event Workshops.” We were able to receive a large amount of one-on-one time with the workshop coordinators. The workshops are a great opportunity for the competitors to talk to experts on their event subject matter.
Regrouping after the workshops, we went to the Career Fair. A simulator by the United States Navy attracted entire teams, who then nominated the most skilled of their group to disable virtual underwater mines. One of my favorite stands included an exhibit of the “Harvard Microflyer”— a robotic fly the size of a penny. During the school year, I had written a research paper that included the Microflyer, but seeing it in person gave me a new appreciation of its size and delicate electronics. I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that part of the robotic fly was made with Mylar, the same wing material that my partner and I used to make the wings of our Science Olympiad helicopter.
When my parents' car pulled up to the dorms the next morning, I let out a big sigh of relief. With several building events in Science Olympiad, transportation of devices to the National Competition can be a bit of a hassle.
“Try explaining a ‘Sumo-Bot’ to airport security sometime,” Mrs. McMichens once said as we were trying to figure out the safest method of transport for our devices.
Luckily for us, my parents volunteered to drive our devices to Wisconsin. Somehow, they were able to fit all the devices in the back of their SUV. When they arrived, the unpacking of the vehicle was a sight to be held. By ones and twos, the entire team lined up to take the precious cargo—a wooden helicopter, wooden towers, a wind-powered device, hand-built musical instruments, a Sumo-robot, a mouse-trap vehicle, a Rube Goldberg machine, goggles, binders the size of the Oxford English Dictionary, and finally, dozens of “Swap Meet” items we brought to trade with other schools.
In a lot of ways, the Opening Ceremony of Science Olympiad reminds me of a “pep rally” at Randolph, but on a much, much larger scale. The venue for this ceremony was a massive complex on campus called the “Kohl Center.” The first event in the Opening Ceremony is always the “Parade of States,” where each state sends out a few team members with a flag or banner of the school they represent.
Teja and I had the honor of representing Randolph, and as we walked to the back of the Kohl Center to prepare for the parade, we caught a glimpse of the auditorium inside. It was HUGE, with an incredible atmosphere. Now, I don’t mean atmosphere as in “ambiance,” I mean atmosphere as in “weather.” Literally, a chilled, translucent mist floated throughout the auditorium. We were terrified.
Last year, Alabama was the last state to step out in the Parade of States because it was in reverse-alphabetical order, so we didn’t really freak out until we were told that this year they were reverting to forward-alphabetical order. As we walked out on stage with the banner, we were blasted by “The Final Countdown,” a song I recognized from playing in the band at Randolph’s home football games. Holding up Randolph’s banner, Teja and I slowly made our way down the aisle to our seats with the rest of the team.
The remainder of the ceremony was a blend of awesome science experiments (carried out by University of Wisconsin Chemistry and Physics chairpersons), indoor fireworks that punctuated the University band’s notes, congratulatory well-wishes by a host of dignitaries and event sponsors, and finally, instructions for the next day’s competition.
When I think of the hectic morning of the competition, a Steinbeck quote comes to mind—“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Even after a great team meeting the night before, there was still room for plans “to go awry.” Some overslept. Others, in a rush to their first event, nearly forgot their “team wristband,” which would have been an instant disqualification. For one student, long lines at the device impound site threatened to throw the rest of his morning schedule into jeopardy (and is probably the reason he forgot his safety goggles). My brother and I forgot important note sheets in our dorm, and to make matters worse, I locked myself out. Fortunately, we all survived the chaos of the morning!
The actual events vary considerably. Many are “study events” that take place in college classrooms. These events are sort of like taking a Semester Exam at Randolph with a friend. One of my events, Ornithology, had real birds for us to identify as opposed to the pictures we saw at the State and Regional competitions. In contrast, other events require total improvisation. I rarely compete in this type of event, but I have great respect for those who design an experiment and complete an entire lab write-up in less than an hour (Experimental Design). The remaining events, and arguably the most exciting, are the “building events.” In one such event, my partner and I flew a helicopter in an effort to obtain the longest flight time, but we were blown-away when we saw some of the competition’s superior designs. Some building events actually involve “battling.” The objective of Sumo-Bots, for example, is to push the opposing robot outside of the battle arena.
One of my personal highlights of the National Science Olympiad is getting to meet individuals from around the country with similar interests. I still keep in touch with some friends from Hawaii who I met at the 2010 National Competition. This year was no different. In one case, I overheard a coach talking about his online website to his team, and I realized he was the author of a site that I had been using since Middle School. I let him know how grateful I was, and after a long talk about fossils, we exchanged e-mail addresses. In another situation, I was intrigued when one competitor with whom I had been talking, casually mentioned that she was the daughter of the recently famous “Tiger Mom.” I was glad I had not heard of that news story before then because I may have formed preconceived notions. Instead, I was able to form an unbiased view of an amazing girl who was very friendly, intelligent, and down-to-earth.
The Closing Ceremony is every bit as exciting as the Opening Ceremony. The only difference is that the pep-music, flashing lights, science experiments, and fireworks, are all replaced with a huge, collective feeling of anticipation. The highlight of the Closing Ceremony for us began when they started to describe the “Spirit Award.” As I listened to the description of the recipients—“Highly enthusiastic…overcame many obstacles”—I casually thought to myself, “That sounds like us.” Yet I was still dumbfounded when the announcer said, “From the State of Alabama, Randolph School!”
It all happened so fast. The entire Kohl Auditorium suddenly erupted into a standing ovation. It took a moment for any of us to move. When our minds had finally processed what had just happened, we nearly tripped over each other as we rose from our seats and descended the long flight of stairs. As we made our way to the stage, competitors in the aisle seats momentarily stopped clapping to give us high-fives. We reached the stage, turned to face the audience, and found that we couldn’t see a thing. We were blinded by the spotlight, but it was great to be in it as a team.
Justin Dehorty ’12 has been a devoted member of Randolph’s Science Olympiad team since 7th Grade, and is currently the President of the Upper School Science Club. In addition to Science Olympiad, Justin has competed in several other academic competitions including: Science Bowl, Debate Team, Scholar’s Bowl, and a few Math and Chess Tournaments. In his spare time, he enjoys playing the tenor saxophone in Randolph’s Jazz Band, volunteering at Crestwood Hospital, and teaching English and Spanish at the Boys and Girl’s Club. For his senior year, he will be the Chairman of the Upper School’s Youth Leadership Council.