Montana State University

Science Olympiad brings out bright ideas

November 25, 2008 -- By Melynda Harrison, MSU News Service

Photo caption: Noxon seventh grader John Onofrey studies the integrity of his bridge as he adds the final amount of weight Tuesday during the elevated bridge event at the Montana Science Olympiad at Montana State University. Onofrey's bridge supported a full 15 kilograms (33 pounds) without breaking. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
Bozeman -- Airplanes made of wood and mylar glided through the air in Montana State University's Brick Breeden Fieldhouse Tuesday.

Tennis balls, hacky sacks and ping pong balls were launched toward targets from catapults, trebuchets and ballistas. Middle and high school students, along with teachers, coaches and parents, discussed technique and cheered after each launch.

Roughly 900 students from more than 30 junior high and high schools around the state competed in this year's Montana Science Olympiad at MSU. A variety of contests that included building bridges and model airplanes, solving crimes, identifying fossils and interpreting maps determined which teams earned a chance to compete at the national tournament held in Augusta, Ga., in May.

The Science Olympiad was hosted by MSU's Math Science Resource Center. About 120 students, staff and faculty from departments across MSU helped put on the tournament, acting as scorers and judges for the Olympiad's 15 events, which were held in five buildings on campus.

"The Olympiad was originally designed to promote science education and recognize outstanding junior high and high school science students; but it also provides students with the opportunity to travel and compete on a team that's not necessarily related to sports," said Olympiad state coordinator Lisa Daly, who also works at MSU's Math Science Resource Center.

Caleb Matthew, a senior at Noxon High School, participated in the Science Olympiad for the fourth year, but it was his first year in the trajectory contest. He built a Greek ballista, a slingshot-like device that propelled a tennis ball toward a target.

"Building the project was the most fun," Matthew said. "I also like being on campus, hanging out with friends and missing school."

While Matthew missed two days of school to attend the Olympiad, he and other Noxon students put in a lot of extra hours to get there. Students chose their own category and project and did the needed research. Teachers and Science Olympiad coaches, Teri Burt and Jarrod Van Vleet were available every day after school to help.

"It is such a great experience to see what a college looks like," Burt said. "It motivates them for education beyond high school. Second to that is that they make a commitment to a project and they have to be resourceful."

Cousins Riley and Dusty Dettwiler, a junior and sophomore at Noxon High School, competed together in the elevated bridge event. John Onofrey, a seventh grader, also participated in the contest. Their task was to design and build the lightest bridge that met size specifications and could hold 15 kg (33 pounds) of weight.

Onofrey spent two weeks drafting and building the prototype of his bridge, which was able to hold the full weight.

"I learned that the design was fine, but that I needed to make it lighter. So, I cut off some unnecessary parts," Onofrey explained.

Elisabeth Swanson, director of the Science Math Resource Center, said MSU hopes the Olympiad will connect Montana math and science-minded junior high and high school students with likeminded faculty, undergraduates and graduate students. Swanson also said the Olympiad helps the visiting students learn more about the study and research opportunities available at MSU.

Perhaps most importantly, the Olympiad publicly recognizes students who are good at math and science, she said.

"It lets students, especially girls, know that being smart in math and science is nothing to hide. It's something to be proud of," Swanson said.

Noxon juniors, Shelby Swant and Stephanie Larkin donned exam gloves and safety glasses while investigating a mock vandalism case during the forensics event. The students analyzed powders, identified fibers and ran chromatography tests.

This was Swant's fifth and Larkin's fourth trip to the Olympiad. They see each year's event as a way to improve for the following year.

"Each year we get better and better and have a more of an understanding of what to expect," said Swank.

"It's nice to get out of our rural area and have experiences that we wouldn't have in Noxon," Swant added.

Contact: Lisa Daly, (406)-994-7606,