On Saturday, Feb. 1, approximately 300 of Albuquerque’s brightest middle and high school students will spend the day competing in the annual Central NM Science Olympiad, hosted by UNM’s STEM-H Center for Outreach, Research and Education. But, this is not your average science, technology, engineering, and math competition. Nor is it similar in any way to a science fair, or the Research Challenge the STEM-H Center hosts each year.

In fact, Science Olympiad operates like a track meet; students divide into teams and each teammate participates in a variety of interactive, hands-on events in order to earn points for their team as well as compete for individual event medals. Seventeen high school teams and nine middle school teams registered to be exposed to numerous academic subjects including math, chemistry, anatomy, science, physics, engineering, robotics, meteorology, earth science, forensics, food science, hydrogeology, rocks & minerals, genetics, engineering building projects (towers, etc.) and much more in interesting and unusual ways.

By blending these disciplines with exciting collaborative events, the competition brings students, teachers, and business leaders together toward a shared goal: getting students interested in STEM-H (science, technology, engineering, math, and health sciences) subjects.

“Science Olympiad is the best place to get hands-on experience in STEM-H subjects. The competitive environment really gets students interested in the subjects and not only learning, but having a blast while doing it," said Erin Garcia, the STEM-H Center’s Assistant Director/Program Specialist who manages this event as well as the Center’s other two major competition programs.

For example, Tower Building requires students to build, (based on a set of specifications, materials, etc. from the National Science Olympiad Event Rules) the lightest tower structure possible that can hold the most weight before it collapses. Another event, Mission Possible, asks students to create a Rube Goldberg machine that performs a simple task in indirect, convoluted ways. And yet another event will test students’ knowledge of herpetology, or the scientific study of reptiles and amphibians.

Most STEM-H careers require teamwork, a skill that Science Olympiad puts at the forefront of the competition. By dividing students into teams of two or three, Science Olympiad encourages students to not only build alliances, but share information and engage in planning and discussion that will lead their team to success. Each student might have a different interest or different strengths, but when combined with those of other students, the team becomes stronger and more capable of doing well at more events.

Several of Saturday’s top high school and middle school teams will move on to compete in New Mexico’s State Science Olympiad competition on Feb. 22, held on campus at New Mexico Tech in Socorro. From there, one middle school team and one high school team from NM will move onto the National Science Olympiad competition at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. on May 15-16, 2020.

“Knowing that we’re getting kids interested in STEM-H subjects and knowing they will go on to do great things in these fields is very rewarding,” Garcia said. “Working with very professional coaches and event supervisors in order to get this going has been a great experience. This event wouldn’t be possible without their help.”

STEM-H Center Director, Karen Kinsman, agreed, stating that the Science Olympiad provides UNM with an opportunity to support middle and high school students as they explore the wonders of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and/or health sciences as well as consider future careers as STEM-H professionals. “This is a competition that provides experiences that allow students to explore their curiosities about and abilities in STEM content areas. We hope to see increased interest over time in the pursuit of STEM careers after high school. Competitions like Science Olympiad are critical components in the development of our future workforce.”

“We are pleased to provide a venue for aspiring STEM-H professionals to further realize their potential as they develop their knowledge and skills through competitions like Science Olympiad,” Kinsman said.

Providing support this year are the flagship sponsor, Sandia National Laboratories, as well as the UNM Office of Research, the UNM Health Sciences Center Office for Diversity, and the UNM School of Engineering. There are Science Olympiad competitions in all 50 states and in Canada. In New Mexico, Science Olympiad teams involve more than 3,000 students.

Going forward, the STEM-H Center aims to continue involving the UNM and broader communities. The Center is always looking for volunteers to help with its events, especially those groups or individuals that have an interest in helping students foster an interest in STEM-H subjects.