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Science Olympiad: More Than Just A Competition

SOCORRO, N.M. February 10, 2010 -- More than 700 bright young students from every corner of New Mexico put their brains to work in Socorro every February during the state Science Olympiad.

The Albuquerque Area Home Schoolers middle school team celebrates the 2009 Science Olympiad championship.
The Lovington crowd (at left) cheers for a winning duo as they head to the stage to collect their medals in 2009.
 New Mexico Military Institute 'intelletes' prepare their bottle rocket for the 2009 competition.
 Two Cloudcroft girls compete in the 2009 New Mexico Science Olympiad.

High school and middle school students compete as teams for individual and team honors in competitions ranging from astrophysics, bridge building, robotics, fossil identification and genetics. Science Olympiad is a rare event that tests students’ knowledge and generates team spirit, camaraderie and the pursuit of excellence.

Albuquerque Academy is the perennial favorite to win. Socorro, Sandia and Hobbs and tiny Cloudcroft – and 20 other teams – will try to dethrone the champs. The 2010 championships are Friday, Feb. 19.

The annual New Mexico Science Olympiad is much more than an academic team competition. The team event also serves as a productive recruiting tool for New Mexico Tech. Prior to visiting Socorro for Science Olympiad, most high school students in the state are unfamiliar with the student opportunities at Tech. Science Olympiad gave many of today’s Techies their first exposure to the academic and research advantages that Tech offers. Dozens of current students first considered Tech after taking part in Science Olympiad. Even for students who do not enroll at Tech, many of them decided to pursue an education in science or engineering because of Science Olympiad.

Science Olympiad coordinator Tony Ortiz said the program is naturally an excellent recruiting tool because Science Olympians – or “intelletes” – are the type of students who excel as college students at Tech.

“These students are involved in science, engineering and research even before they come to college,” Ortiz said. “Science Olympiad gives us the chance to show off our campus and let students know what opportunities are available at Tech.”

Because the hundreds of “intelletes” are focused on the competition during the one-day event and have precious little time to tour academic departments, Ortiz doesn’t try to turn the competition into a heavy recruiting tool. He uses a soft approach.

“We try to make their experience on campus a good one,” Ortiz said. “Many students compete in Science Olympiad year after year and become familiar with Tech and our people. We want them to have a positive experience and enjoy themselves.”

Kalyn Jones, a freshman at Tech, said her experiences in Science Olympiad had everything to do with her decision to come to Tech. An electrical engineering major from Cloudcroft, she said, “I didn’t even know Tech was here until I got into Science Olympiad.”

Jones joined her middle school team when she was in fifth grade. When she was in ninth grade, she competed in eight events at state. As a senior, she was among the top scorers in the state and earned a special scholarship.

“I kept coming back up here and it got a hold of me,” she said. “It’s the environment. At Science Olympiad, you realize that there’s a place for science people … and it’s New Mexico Tech.”

During her many trips to Socorro, Jones said she got to meet professors and plenty of Tech students while visiting campus. “Tech students would sit outside the events and tell you all about the school and answer all our questions. That was really nice,” she said.

After the opening ceremony, the teams spread out around campus, setting up camp in conference rooms, classrooms and lounges. Competitors hustle to various events in the gym, the playing field, auditoriums and classrooms. For those who return year after year, they get fairly familiar with the New Mexico Tech campus. The day closes with a raucous awards presentation that resembles a multi-school pep assembly.

“Science Olympiad gives us an opportunity to showcase Tech,” Ortiz said. “We want to maximize our exposure and have these students leave with good memories.”

Last year, Ortiz treated all visiting students to a pizza party on Friday evening – an event he is repeating this year. Ortiz also has invited students to attend “Around the World in 80 Minutes,” a Performing Arts Series show featuring Marty Essen.

Most of the competitions are judged by professors and graduate students, giving prospective students the opportunity to interact with current collegians. Plus, the top performing seniors each year are awarded a modest scholarship to attend Tech – which is added to other grade-based or test-based awards.

“Science Olympiad is important for Tech and important for New Mexico,” Ortiz said. “We show children that science can be fun and that problem-solving can be exciting.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech