Engineers of the Future

Engineers of the Future

Members of the Longfellow Science Olympiad team prepare for national competition.

Longfellow Middle School students Emily Bogdan and Lisa Nam knew that they had been working hard when the employees at Michael's Arts and Crafts began to recognize them.

"The people at Michael's know us by name because we are in there so much," said Nam.

The two eighth graders are members of the Longfellow Science Olympiad team, and their specialty is building bridges. "We make so many bridges and break them," said Nam.

Bogdan estimates that they have built and destroyed approximately 40 prototypes.

"Basically we build a bridge, and then they test them," said Bogdan, explaining how the bridge competition works in the Science Olympiad. "The one that weighs the least and carries the most wins."

Every day at 2:30 p.m., when most of their friends leave to go home, the members of the Longfellow Science Olympiad team gather in their classroom and spend two to three hours creating special projects and studying scientific problems. They have been doing this since January of 2006, and on April 22 in Alexandria, 15 members of the 45-student team won first place in the Fifth Annual Northern Virginia Middle School Science Olympiad. Those 15 students are preparing for the national tournament, which will be held in Indiana on May 19 and 20.

"It's very exciting to watch them work," said Mary Harwood, whose son Rick is a member of the team. "The cool thing is that with 23 different events, they get to learn a lot of different things."

This is the first year that Longfellow has had a Science Olympiad team. Scott VanBenschoten began teaching science at Longfellow this year, and as he had prior experience with the Olympiad, he decided to get the Longfellow students involved.

"They're fantastic," said VanBenschoten. "It's been an amazing experience working with them, and I really feel like we've become a family this year. There is a big mix of students, and I thought a lot of them knew each other beforehand, but it actually turns out that they didn't, and they have all just become good friends through working together."

THE COMPETITION covers a wide range of scientific topics. In some segments, such as the bridge competition, the students are required to build something beforehand. In others, students simply take exams that test their overall knowledge of a particular subject. The tests last about 45 minutes, and can include everything from short answers to multiple choice.

Seventh grader Rachel Marzen said she enjoys the Science Olympiad because it gives her the chance to learn a wide range of subjects.

"The hardest thing is figuring out what to learn," said Marzen.

Eighth graders Vish Sridharan and George Li are currently practicing for the "You Can't Judge a Powder" segment of the upcoming National Olympiad.

"Basically they give you a powder, and then they give you different chemicals and you have to do tests on it," said Sridharan. "It's a lot of fun because you get to see lots of different reactions."

Eighth grader Nolan Bader is working with six other students on a project for "Mission Impossible," one of the hardest segments of the Olympiad. The group is creating a machine that uses the laws of physics to launch a marble through a series of slides and drops, ultimately causing it to start a mechanism that will yield 20-35 cm of toilet paper as the end result.

"This is definitely not a one-man thing," said Bader.

Bader and his fellow teammates said they learn how to create machines such as this by going to competitions and by doing research.

"Sometimes it doesn't work and then you have to make modifications," said seventh-grader Hamed Eramian.

Eighth grade students Mic Byrne and Kevin Pyne are working on building a "Floating Arm Trebuchet" for the "Storm the Castle" segment of the National Olympiad. This is the third trebuchet that the two have built. In this segment, the object is to create a catapult that can fling a small object at a fake castle.

"The one that throws the furthest and the most accurate wins," said Bryne.

According to him, the key to success is to build a lightweight arm because "it flings faster." Another important factor is the pouch that holds the object to be thrown.

"It has to be a firm material... but also malleable," said Byrne.

Although being an Olympiad member is a serious time commitment, many of the students enjoy it because it has given them the chance to learn a lot of different skills while also making new friends.

"Personally I think it's really cool to be building things and going to competitions," said Nolan Bader. "I've met a lot of really cool people."