On Feb. 1 at UNM's Johnson Center, some of Albuquerque’s brightest middle and high school students will be spending their Saturday competing in the annual Science Olympiad, hosted by UNM’s STEM-H Center for Outreach, Research and Education (CORE).

But this is not your average science event. 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. Eleven high school teams and 11 middle school teams are exposed to numerous academic subjects including math, chemistry, anatomy, science, physics, engineering, geology, earth science, genetics and technology 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 subjects.

“Science Olympiad is the best place to get hands-on experience in STEM subjects. The competitive environment really gets kids interested in the subjects and not only learning, but having a blast while doing it," said Richard Persinger, this year’s Science Olympiad coordinator.

For example, the “boomilever event” requires students to build the lightest crane possible that can hold the most weight before it collapses. Another event will ask students to create a Rube Goldberg machine, or a machine that performs a simple task in indirect, convoluted ways. And yet another event will test students’ knowledge of entomology, or the scientific study of insects.

Most STEM 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.

“The best advice I can give a student is to pick an event they are interested in and do some in-depth, independent research on that topic,” said Persinger. “The event supervisors will test their knowledge, and they need to know their topic as best they can.”

The day’s top six high school and top five middle school teams will move on to compete in New Mexico’s state Science Olympiad competition on Feb. 22, held on the New Mexico Tech campus. From there, the winners of that competition will move onto the national Science Olympiad competition, held May 16-17 at the University of Central Florida.

According to Pat Duda, former Albuquerque science teacher and one of the original founders of the area’s regional Science Olympiad, the competition was initially started in the late 1990s. When the local committee was unable to continue running the event, Duda said she approached UNM STEM-H CORE director Karen Kinsman about taking it over. In 2004, the department hosted the competition and has been growing it since that time.

The overall goal of the competition, at any level, is to promote student interest in science and engineering. The hope is that a students’ interest in STEM fields when they’re young will later lead them into STEM careers.

“Knowing that I’m getting kids interested in STEM subjects and knowing they will go on to do great things in STEM fields is very rewarding,” Persinger said. “And 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.”

Kinsman agreed, stating that the Olympiad provides UNM with an opportunity to support middle and high school students as they explore the wonders of science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics.

“We are pleased to provide a venue for aspiring scientists to further realize their potential as they develop their knowledge and skills through the Science Olympiad,” Kinsman said.

Providing support this year are Sandia National Laboratories, the UNM Office of Research, the UNM School of Engineering, and PNM Resources. 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, Persinger aims to continue involving the UNM community. “Getting the word out has been a challenge,” Persinger explained. “We are always looking for volunteers to help with our events, especially those who have an interest in helping students foster an interest in STEM subjects.”

To volunteer with Science Olympiad or for more information about this competition, contact the STEM-H Center for Outreach, Research and Education at 277-4916 or stemed@unm.edu.