The Science Olympiad: Volunteering for Science Education

You stare ahead, waiting restlessly, and shift your weight back and forth in the seat that you can’t quite seem to make comfortable. Your arms rest on the table, pencil hovering precipitously over the packet of paper that is alone save for your ever-at-the-ready calculator. When will it begin? Your heart races, palms sweating as you run everything over and over again through your mind, wondering if you’ve studied enough.

Suddenly, the word is out: it’s time. You have fifty minutes. You flip from the first page, where you wrote your name and the name of your school, to the start of the test.

But this isn’t a normal test. You’re not here for the grade.

You’re here for the glory.

You volunteered for this. You have several other events today, some of them written tests like this and some not. You imagine the weight of the medal hanging around your neck, heart swelling with pride.

And you are filled with joy: that of a mind expanded as you’ve taken the time to learn more about the wonders of science.

This was me as a nerdy high schooler, and it will be the countless students this spring who participate in the Science Olympiad.

It was also the few dozen students who sat in front of me recently.

I took a day out of my schedule to volunteer at one of the regional Science Olympiad competitions in my home state. I helped supervise the competitors and score their tests. During my thoughtful moments, it was fascinating to note the stark contrast between then and now. I felt at ease, surrounded by obviously nervous teenagers whose thoughts were probably filled with the material of a few different subjects all crammed into one day—teenagers in the place I once occupied.

The Science Olympiad is a competition which allots to the science crowd the pageantry, drama, excitement, and yes, even glory, usually relegated to sports. If you’ve never participated, there are a few dozen events to choose from in different areas of science and technology. Some events are hands-on (including chemical lab work and construction of machines), some are written tests, and some combine elements of both. Students, usually in pairs, can participate in only a handful of them and are broken up by school. At the end of the day, the highest placing teams receive medals and the schools that received the highest overall scores win trophies. Schools that do well enough in sectional competitions move on to the state competition, and from there can move on to a national event.

For the curious, here is the Science Olympiad’s website. There are individual websites for each state as well. You’ll probably notice pretty quickly the high-profile list of funders—in the science world, this is big.

I feel as though the comparison with sports is especially apt given the effects of the competition upon its participants. Students who usually don’t have much reason to celebrate their accomplishments before a cheering crowd get that opportunity, and it’s a huge encouragement for someone going into science. It’s also a message: science deserves celebration and excitement as much as any sporting event does.

It’s a way to learn about careers, too. The tests often involve topics that aren’t covered in as much depth during classes. The supervisor for the event I helped with was a professional working in the field that the test covered, and I got to see her talk to an excited boy who wanted to do the same thing. He got to meet someone who made it happen and see a potential future for himself, all through this competition as a connecting point.

If you want to get involved and volunteer for a Science Olympiad competition, here are some things I picked up:

Competition coordinators usually look for people with experience in a specific field (professionals or teachers), many of whom participated in the Science Olympiad, to write the tests. So if you fit this profile, you have a chance to get very heavily involved!

That isn’t the option for most people, though. If you want to get involved (but not that much) then I encourage you to do what I did. Contact a coordinator for a regional, sectional, or state event and offer to assist with one of the events. Assistants will mostly just supervise students while they compete and then help score their tests afterward.

If you’ve participated in the Science Olympiad in middle or high school, then I definitely encourage you to get involved. It’s a great way to reciprocate what you were given and doesn’t require much effort on your part—only time. I did this opportunistically, as a regional competition was held very close to where I live.

Check out the website for your state’s Science Olympiad. It will have the list of sectional and regional competition locations and will also list coordinators for each one (the person you will want to get in contact with). It will also have the list of events (if you have a preference). As an example, here’s the site of the state where I participated.

This is a great way to get involved in science education, and for me was a very positive experience.


To the reader: have you participated in the Science Olympiad as a competitor, coach, or volunteer? How was your experience? What do you think of the value of science competitions like this to society?

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