Montana State University

Spring 2013

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Mountains and Minds

Photo by Kelly Gorham

Games of wonder May 07, 2013 by Michael Becker • Published 05/07/13

More than 1,300 Montana students joust in annual Science Olympiad

In a corner of a gym at Montana State University, far more people gather around a two-foot cube than should have possibly fit around it.

Each person angles for a view, leaning to peek around the judges who are trying to review the device sitting on the floor in front of them.

At the heart of the scrum are two middle schoolers from Clancy, Mont., and their Rube Goldberg device--a box filled with gears, wheels, ramps and motors, all set off in series by the drop of a coin. Its purpose: performing a laundry list of consecutive tasks to gain points.

Points add up for each second the machine runs, for setting up the device in less than 30 minutes, for submitting correct paperwork and, of course, for accomplishing all the tasks set forth in the rules.

Just as someone wonders how much oxygen is left in the middle of the tight crowd for Clancy students Devin Seylor and John Burkland, the quarter drops.

Few can see it, but the sounds tell a complicated story: pops, whirs, bangs and whizzes. Some end in an instant; others go for much longer, so long you could feel in your bones something was wrong.

Then it's all over. The judges take up their calculators and clipboards, and the competitors wait for their score, all the while analyzing each design failure and hoping the successes were enough.

This is Mission Possible, and it's just one of the events at the annual Science Olympiad, a massive tournament of wits that draws more than 1,000 Montana students to MSU each November.


MSU has hosted the state's Science Olympiad since 1985, when just 17 teams journeyed to Bozeman from high schools and middle schools across Montana.

Ted Polette, coach of the Clancy team, has been there for most of them.

This year was Polette's 26th coaching a team. He has been involved for so long that he has helped shape some of the international Olympiad rules--usually necessary after one of his students finds a creative way to read between the rule book's lines.

"It doesn't matter if we're a small school," he tells his students now by way of motivation. "We changed the world."

Polette's teams have won the Montana Science Olympiad's small school division five times and the middle school division once. In the past decade, a Clancy team has finished in the top five every year, and in 2011, the team finished best overall for the entire Montana Olympiad, earning a trip to nationals in Florida.

"Clancy, as far as Montana goes, we're on the map because of Science Olympiad," he said.

Clancy is a town of about 1,600 people along the interstate just south of Helena. Bordered on the east and west by rocky hills, the town was founded in the 1870s as a gold camp and became a railroad town and home to silver and quartz mines.

The town's school--just paid off, the principal boasted--feels large for the number of kids in it, around 260 in kindergarten through eighth grade. The average class size is 17.

Enrollment was down this year, Polette said, as was the town's overall population, which fluctuates with mining activity. That meant the Science Olympiad team's enrollment was down too, from 22 in 2011 to just 14. The coach called 2012 a rebuilding year.

Many Olympiad schools recruit the "smart" kids who do well in all their classes, he said. So did Clancy, for a while. Then about 12 years ago, Polette decided to get more kids involved, so he held school-wide tryouts allowing any student to vie for a spot on the team.

The open tryouts had two big benefits. First, it gradually built a culture of Science Olympiad at Clancy--even the kindergartners know what it is and can't wait to try out. Second, it brought home medals.

"As soon as we went to that system, we started placing and winning in Bozeman," Polette said.

Medals are the gravy, he said. The real success came in getting students excited about science and learning.

"It was to inspire them and hopefully direct them to a science career," he said. "Now, these kids come back and tell me, 'High school is so easy.' That really gets my fire going."


After teaching morning physical education, Polette typically meets his Olympiad team in the science room for lunch practice.

At one table, 13-year-olds Kahsiah Benson and Serena Stiles were checking their forensic analysis kit for the Crime Busters event.

Elsewhere, 11-year-old Caiden Riggs was going over the vocabulary of infectious disease and wondering about food poisoning while eating from a plastic lunch tray. His partner, Kassi Schmitz, 13, was engrossed in research on a laptop.

Noah Anspach, 12, was preparing for the astronomy event by reviewing the electromagnetic spectrum and Hertzsprung-Russell diagrams.

"We come in every day during recess," Anspach said. "We never get to go outside. We get white skin from being inside so much."

With just four days until the big event, the evidence of preparation was everywhere: needle-nose pliers, scraps of wood, tissue paper, computers, mousetrap-powered vehicles wheeling across the floor, boxes of LEGOs. At the front of the room, Polette was asking but not waiting for quiet as he read over the Olympiad's ethics rules.

Behind him hung the Science Olympiad State Champions' plaque. It was filled with rows of names from years past; just a couple empty spots remained.

Then, just as practice ended, students John Burkland and Paidyn Bulkley ran in from the gym, where they were testing their rubber-band powered helicopter. They had just timed a flight of more than a minute.

"It hit the roof," Burkland said.

Polette said he was getting ready to order another plaque.


"So far, I haven't seen another fly as long as ours, and I hope it stays that way," said Bulkley four days later as she stands on the floor of the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse waiting for her team's turn.

Already, there is drama. Burkland forgot to print a fresh copy of test flight logs. It means a penalty: 10 percent off their flight time, explains judge Andrew Sullivan.

Handicapped from the start, Burkland and Bulkley walk to the middle of the flight area, crank the rubber band the prescribed number of twists and launch.

The helicopter accelerates swiftly straight into the gym floor.

The event clock is running. The team has eight minutes to make both flights, and the middle schoolers are frantically troubleshooting. The problem is small: The rubber band was installed upside-down. A switch, a precise number of cranks and they let it go.

This time, it soars.

"Go down!" calls a competitor. "It's going down," remarks another.

It isn't.

The copter climbs to about 30 feet before beginning its slow, drifting descent. The flight time is about a minute, but it's scored at 54 seconds with the penalty.

"I was so stressed out after that," Bulkley said afterward. "It was supposed to go a lot longer."


The national Olympiad program was less than five years old, the result of a grassroots assembly of science teachers in Delaware and Michigan, when MSU began hosting the Montana Science Olympiad in 1985. Now, more than 6,400 teams in all 50 states compete each year.

Since its founding, MSU's Olympiad has swelled from 300 attendees to more than 1,200. Putting it on each year requires a huge commitment of manpower and organization, something event coordinator Ben Kinsella knows well.

Are there enough goggles for the event? Scratch paper? Which sorority is volunteering where? Have enough gluten-free lunches been ordered? Kinsella along with Jesse Hunter, Annie Mollock and Alaina Garcia, oversee it all from their office in Linfield Hall.

A 2009 MSU mechanical engineering grad, Kinsella said 2012 was his first year working at the Science and Math Resource Center, under the direction of Elisabeth Swanson, which puts on the Olympiad.

A big part of the job is coordinating the more than 100 volunteers from around MSU. Professors, graduate students and undergraduates from almost every department take part. As do students, who often volunteer because of their own experiences at the Olympiad back in high school and middle school.

"Everyone is more than willing to help," he said.

Part of the reason, he said, is because the Science Olympiad is a time to show off the best MSU has to offer future students. After their events, competitors take laboratory tours and meet with faculty and students.

This year, tours were offered in the Space Science and Engineering Lab, the MOSES Rocket Lab and the ion beam laboratory. Students could see nano-scale research, high-altitude balloons and 3-D printers and then hear talks with titles like "Physics of Skis," "Build Your Own Virus" and "How to Train Your Robot."

It helps the young students see that the kind of science they're learning about has real world uses, and real people are making careers in science.

"These things matter to science and humanity, and it is stuff 19-year-old students can work on here at MSU," Kinsella said. "These kids already have an aptitude for this, so it's cool for them to see they can continue on with science at MSU, where it's really important."

That's a powerful recruiting tool, said Micki MacGregor, who helped organize the Olympiad for more than 15 years.

"These students come back year after year and compete, and they are comfortable at MSU," said MacGregor, who now works for the Department of Education. The competitors get to know the campus, the programs offered, the research being conducted.

"These students from really small rural communities in Montana, it's kind of scary when they take that step out of their small town," MacGregor said. "A university is a lot of times a lot bigger than their hometowns, so to be able to go someplace familiar is really important."


It is mid-afternoon, and the ballrooms at the Strand Union building are teeming with Olympians for the awards ceremony.

At this point, it's a waiting game, says Clancy co-coach Deanna Carlson, who teaches sixth-grade science, English and math. The students are never sure until the ceremony how their scores stacked up against the competition.

A relative newcomer to coaching Science Olympiad, Carlson said the event has tremendous value for young students.

"The earlier kids get to see there's cool stuff going on at college, the more of them will go," she said.

At this point, the announcers come on stage and swiftly move through the awards. Tedious awards ceremonies were the bane of past Olympiads for teams eager to start the long drives home.

Rocks and Minerals, Crime Busters, Metric Mastery, Mission Possible, Mousetrap Vehicle, Sounds of Music. Clancy's in the top three in all of them, but it's not enough for a repeat of their 2011 performance. Clancy winds up second behind Corvallis in their division.

If anyone on the team was disappointed, you couldn't tell from all the cheering and hollering on their way up to the stage to receive their medals.

Then, as Clancy waits in line for a team photo, the overall tournament winner is announced. The award goes to Billings Central High School, and coach Polette couldn't be happier.

The team's coach is Greg Williams, coaching in just his second Olympiad. Williams is an MIT graduate who also just happens to have once been a Science Olympiad champion--for Clancy and for Polette.

After the photos and handshakes and amid the excitement of getting to eat out before the bus ride home, Polette remarks that it was a great day.

"We need heavy duty shocks on the bus to carry all this hardware home," he jokes.

And the Clancy School has a new plaque for the science room wall.