At 2 a.m. on a Saturday, an assortment of Palo Alto High School students, armed with backpacks, pile into a bus in anticipation of the long drive ahead. They carry with them an array of weapons: calculators and science texts covering topics from biology to astronomy to advanced physics. Despite the early hour, the students are energized and eager, awaiting the state competition looming ahead.
“There’s a certain amount of energy on a bus at 2 a.m.,” junior Grace Lin explains, recounting her experience of the first time she attended the California state competition two years ago. Lin is one of the three student presidents in charge of this group: Paly’s Science Olympiad team.
Science Olympiad, also known as SciOly, is a nationwide non-profit organization intended to promote student interest in science. At Paly, where SciOly takes the form of a year-long club, there are two teams: the Green Team, which, according to engineering president senior Alvin Kim, is like the “A-team” and has made it to state competitions, and the White Team, the “B-team,” which competes at the regional level and provides members with engineering experience.
SciOly teams of 15 students compete at regional, state, and national levels in 23 different science-related event categories. This February, the Paly Green Team won first place in the Bay Area Regional Science Olympiad by 80 points — their third straight victory — and qualified for the state competition in mid-April.
“We’re currently fine-tuning our events to prepare,” Kim says. “If we win first [place in states] then we go to nationals in May.”
The competition events are either study or engineering-based, and students often specialize in a specific area of expertise. Study-based events include an hour-long test, to be taken by a team of at least two students, and engineering events require students to build a mechanical device in 50 minutes.
SciOly competitions are split up into a daily schedule with one-hour events from morning until afternoon. Junior Annie Chen, a member of the Green Team, explains the intensity of the competition environment during study events.
“Other schools’ teams are competing right next to you and everyone is really focused,” Chen says. “Partners will whisper to each other so the other teams don’t hear [and] everyone’s writing really fast too because one hour is actually not a lot of time to take the tests given.”
Kim says the competition environment is hectic but exciting.
“The competition is a totally crazy atmosphere,” Kim says. “[There are] dozens of high school teams and middle school teams, all with food, engineering equipment and parents. You always see students sprinting around the campus, whether it is to get super glue or to bring goggles. There’s a lot of energy going around.”
Kim, Lin and senior Jeffrey Ling, the Green Team’s other engineering president, agree that the primary challenge for the Green Team at the state competition will be Mira Loma, a school with a nearly 20-year-long winning record.
“Mira Loma High School wins every year,” Ling says. “Our goal is always to defeat them, since only first place can advance from states to nationals. So far we have been doing fairly well with good performances in all events, but the year is far from over.”
Lin believes the team has a good chance at making the national competition this year, and says they have been preparing at least five hours a week for states.
“We really think it can happen this year, so people are definitely excited and working hard to see if we can beat Mira Loma,” Lin says.
Kim hopes to improve the engineering skills of the team, as he expects the building events to be a deciding factor in the state competition.
“My personal goal is to make our engineering earn first to third place in all of the events,” Kim says. “While we placed decently at regionals, engineering is normally our downfall at states, so I really want to make sure that we turn our weakness into one of our strengths.”
He notes that a challenge for the team is the lack of funding for quality building materials.
“We don’t have the sponsoring and money that the big name schools like Mira Loma get, so we often have to rely on our own equipment we have at home,” Kim says. “While this can suffice, it would have been great if we could have used better tools and better building equipment to improve the quality of our devices.”
Chen adds that another challenge for the team is replacing the seniors every year, as the seniors, who are the most experienced, tend to drive the team forward in competitions.
“Our seniors usually carry the team by competing in the most events and specialized events,” Chen says. “We’re trying to solve this issue by encouraging our younger team members to study different events more so they can fill in the gaps as the years go by. We also mentor a middle school SciOly team to try to increase interest in SciOly even before they enter high school.”
Despite these obstacles, Kim, Ling, Lin and Chen feel that SciOly has been a worthwhile experience so far, as they have acquired many useful skills and enjoyed working together as a team.
“Our study meetings are not too intense at all and instead we spend a lot of time bonding,” Kim says. “We really emphasize the team part of SciOly, and it shows in how close we all are with each other.”
Lin values maintaining a close team bond, as this keeps the team well-rounded and focused during competitions.
“It’s kind of nice to make scientific jokes and have people get them,” she says. “We like to think of ourselves as not just a team, but a very convoluted family.”
Chen enjoys the distinct sense of community that SciOly provides.
“The best part about SciOly is the people,” Chen says. “There are some people I don’t think I would have ever become friends with if I didn’t meet them through SciOly. Even though the common perception might be that SciOly is a club for people who really like science, we all have our own different interests.”
Chen adds that she has gained knowledge concerning a variety of science topics from her time on the SciOly team.
“SciOly is great because it has events that focus on more obscure sciences like identification and astronomy so there’s always something new to learn,” Chen says. “Although there are chemistry, physics and biology related events, the science you learn can be so different from what you learn in a classroom.”
After months of preparation and a big win in the regional competition this winter, Kim feels the SciOly team will continue to grow and improve over the coming years.
“Looking back now, I’m so proud of how much we’ve accomplished so far,” Kim says. “Seeing that we have such a young team, I know that our SciOly team will be strong for years to come.”
Lin says she wants to continue to promote hard work and good performance at future competitions.
“I’m very excited and proud to be a SciOly president and to continue our stellar performance at competitions,” Lin says. “There’s a lot of support on this team, and we try to continue that environment, that acceptance. We try to repeat our performance.”