The room in Linsly-Chittenden Hall was silent as audience members watched the small wooden structure engineered by two high school students groan under an increasing load of sand bags. After nearly 30 pounds, the structure snapped and the sand bag crashed to the ground with a resounding boom. The audience erupted into applause, and the engineering competition called Boomilever was underway.
Boomilever was just one of the 21 events at Yale’s first Undergrad Science Olympiad, the first ever designed and hosted by a University. On Saturday, roughly 700 high school students from five states and 25 different schools flooded Yale’s campus to participate in the competition, which offered students a unique chance to experience areas of science not normally taught in the classroom. Events ranged from tests on Anatomy and Geologic Mapping to hands-on events like Circuit Lab and Magnetic Levitation.
At the end of competition, the students from Ward Melville High School from Long Island, New York won first place out of 43 teams, with victories in Boomilever, Dynamic Planet, Geologic Mapping, and Scrambler.
“The Science Olympiad program is really important because it inspires kids to seek different subjects in science that may be more interesting to them than the typical bio, chem, physics sequences which can have the potential to alienate kids,” said Ike Lee ’15, the director of YUSO. “Science can tend to get exponentially harder as you reach a college level and that often discourages kids unless you instill in them that sense of curiosity at a young age.”
Science Olympiads have been mainstays of high school curriculums for the past three decades and currently run in all but one state, Lee said. While universities in the past allowed high schools to use their facilities for the event, until this past weekend, no university had ever designed and orchestrated its own.
The idea to host a science Olympiad at Yale began 10 months ago, when Lee and associated directors Xiyu Wang ’15 and Nicholas Billmeyer ’16 volunteered at the Connecticut State championships for Science Olympiad. All three had participated in Olympiads during high school in New York — a state with one of the largest competition circuits in the country. At the Connecticut Championship last March, they noticed that Connecticut’s circuit was relatively weak and struggled at the national level, Billmeyer said.
Many of the competitions emphasize working in teams in order to simulate the skills necessary for careers in scientific study and research. In “Write it, Do it”, one team member described the specific orientations of small structures needed to build a larger device, while the other team member listened to the instructions only to recreate the original as quickly and accurately as possible. First place went to South Windsor, for reconstructing a device made out of forks, a straw, a paper cup, two rubber bands and three matches.
Maxine Faass, a junior from Conestoga High School in Pennsylvania, noted that the science Olympiad displayed none of the gender bias so often present in the sciences: While some of the building and engineering events had more male than female participants, at least half of all competitors present for the YUSO were female, Faass said.
The Olympiad attracted dozens of volunteers in the form of Yale undergraduates, many of whom had participated in similar competitions in high school.
The team of Yale organizers plans to bring the invitational back next year and has already received emails from other universities asking for help and advice on how to run a competition.
“MIT, Harvard and Columbia have already sent us multiple questions about how we orchestrated the event and proposed different possibilities for collaboration in coming years,” Wang said. “It’s heartening to have such an overwhelmingly positive response.”
Apart from Connecticut, students in the competition hailed from New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Georgia.