GARY | Students from Valparaiso’s Thomas Jefferson Middle School followed a long-standing tradition of taking top honors in Saturday's regional Science Olympiad tournament at Indiana University Northwest.
“Our students have won 20 state finals and have participated in the national Science Olympiad tournament for 23 years in a row,” said Rich Bender, a retired science teacher from the middle school.
Bender and fellow science teacher Carol Haller started the school’s Science Olympiad program in 1986 and continue to both coach the teams.
The 16 students on the Jefferson team included five who are now freshmen at Valparaiso High School and were on last year’s winning middle school team, which is allowed by the rules, Bender said. Two to three students entered each of the 23 events, that including tasks in engineering, biology, chemistry and earth sciences.
At Saturday’s tournament, the Jefferson team took 16 first places, six second places, one third place and two fourth places in the various events, he said.
In fact, public and parochial middle and high school students from Porter County dominated the regional competition, garnering five of the eight top spots to advance to the state Science Olympiad finals March 16 at Indiana University Bloomington.
Twenty-two teams – 11 each in the high school division C and the middle school division B – squared off in 46 regular events and three trial events that tested their science prowess and ability to work under pressure.
“Some schools entered two teams, so they have an A or B designation,” said Linda Woznewski, a department of chemistry lab lecturer at IUN, chairman of the national Science Olympiad rules committee and associate director for the state Science Olympiad.
“Schools throughout the state can decide what regional tournament to enter,” she said, explaining why Carmel High School from near Indianapolis competed in the contest at IUN.
“We have an A-number 1 steering committee running this event and support from on high here at IU Northwest,” Woznewski said as she supervised a middle school food science event in the chemistry lab.
IUN students majoring in the sciences also volunteered to supervise the various Science Olympiad events.
IUN junior David Trykall, 20, of Munster, worked in the Boomilever event which tests the amount of weight a wooden crane-like boom will hold before it breaks.
Tommy Pampalone, 11, and Carter O’Laughlin, 12, sixth-graders from Chesterton’s St. Patrick’s School, scored well with their design for the boomilever.
“The score is based on the mass of the weight it holds divided by the mass of the boomilever,” said Pampalone, who said he plans to become an architect.
“I used balsa wood, wood glue and gorilla glue at some of the critical points,” said O’Laughlin, possibly another future architect or a construction company director. “It failed at a glue joint.”
Now in its 29th year nationally, Science Olympiad encourages students to explore careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Angela Duan, 15 and a sophomore at Merrillville High, said the future of careers in science and technology is growing.
“There are great possibilities,” Duan said as she rushed off to the high school water quality event. “New opportunities are opening all the time.”