Olympiad Promotes Science . . . And Whimsy
6th Annual Event Draws Budding Engineers
Trevor Vaughn was going for the balloons. Forget the corks, the CD, the stack of pennies and two Ping-Pong balls that his homemade robot was supposed to shove around a strip of carpet to earn points. He pressed the levers on his remote control, which hurled a flimsy robot arm with a wad of masking tape and jumble of straight pins at the balloons.
Pop! Pop! Forty points. In his two-minute turn on the carpet, Trevor, 15, a sophomore at Oakton High School in Vienna, took the lead in the Robot Ramble, one of the signature events at the sixth annual Virginia Science Olympiad. Not bad for a guy who was flopped on a couch in his basement the night before trying to figure out how to design his “bot.” The idea for the wrecking-ball arm didn’t come to him until well after midnight. How did he get that eureka moment? “Lack of sleep, I guess,” he shrugged. For hours afterward, Trevor stuck around, not only to see if he would hold on to the lead — which he doubted — but also to see how other budding scientists and engineers designed their robots — and how many of the 277 possible points they’d snag.
He had a long day ahead of him. This year, more than 17 teams from a host of public and private schools competed at the middle school level and 19 teams at the high school level in 23 science events, from reading maps to identifying bugs to using forensic evidence such as hair and fingerprints to solve a mur- der. Many wore matching T-shirts with Albert Einstein quotes or “Wear Your Goggles” slogans. Nearly half were girls. (Take that, Lawrence Summers.)
Although most teams came from schools in Northern Virginia, more than a dozen students from a school in Luray boarded a school bus at 5 a.m. to make it to West Potomac High School in Fairfax for the 8 a.m. event. Teams from Maryland, which doesn’t have a Science Olympiad, also participated.
Trevor watched from the sidelines as the team from Fairfax High retrieved its robot.
Anirudh Khandelwal and Owen Lynch, both 16, said they had been staying up until 3 a.m. for several weeks to work on theirs, which looked like a little dump truck on skateboard wheels and held together with silver electrician’s tape.
In the preceding weeks, the robot had shorted out and started smoking. But Anirudh was amped. “I’m going on Red Bull right now.”
After two minutes, their little machine had managed to move a couple of corks and a Ping-Pong ball before it crashed into a wall and died. They earned three points.
The idea behind the Olympiad is to promote science. Typically, only a handful of students have the interest and dedication to come up with a major project to enter in a science fair. But because of its variety of events, the Olympiad is for everyone.
Some students built catapults and sent rubber balls thwapping across the gym. Some built musical instruments. Others competed in the “Scrambler,” building funky-looking vehicles designed to go a limited distance before crashing into a wall and breaking a raw egg aboard. (One student used his parents’ old vinyl records for wheels.)
Ariel Lang, 15, of South Lakes High in Reston sighed as she packed up the model she built in the “Write It. Do It” event. Her partner saw a model made out of clay, wooden cylinders, straws and plastic foam balls and wrote directions for how to build it. Ariel, in another room, had to follow those directions. Neither hers nor the seven other models in the room looked remotely like the original. “I don’t think I got even close,” she said.
Back at the Robot Rambler, Trevor watched, resigned, as his robot was creamed by the entry of McLean’s Langley High School students and finished in the middle of the pack. Langley’s well-oiled machine, “Boomshot,” popped balloons, shoved corks and picked up the CD effortlessly. The team ended up with 230 points and a good shot at the national title next month at the National Science Olympiad in Wichita.
But even the Langley juggernaut, which won first place last year, almost didn’t happen. Matt Nazari, 17, had nervously put the AA batteries in the robot upside down.
Trevor’s head was filled with ideas for next year’s Olympiad. “You can’t take it too seriously. In this event, anything can go wrong,” he said. “And if it can, it probably will.”
Matt Nazari, 17, left, and Nathan Park, 16, of Langley High School in McLean, are pleased with the performance of their robot. It won the event.