Olympiad Pro­motes Science . . . And Whimsy

6th An­nual Event Draws Bud­ding En­gi­neers

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro Week - By Brigid Schulte

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.”

BY CAROL GUZY — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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