NSHA students are in their element with third place finish at Science Olympiad

Whether it’s building a gravity-propelled car that hurtles towards a wall, constructing a bridge that can support a thousand times its own weight, or diving deep into the cosmos with images from the James Webb Space Telescope, NSHAHS students showed off their science chops with a third place overall finish at the recent BJE Science Olympiads held last month at Lander College.

Fifteen students, from the ninth, tenth and eleventh grades, competed against 10 other Jewish schools in different events that challenge participants to use math and science concepts, acquired knowledge, and building skills to solve problems and answer questions.

“It is the most intense day of science you can imagine,” said Mr. G. Wykes, 10th grade chemistry teacher and coach of the Science Olympiad team. “Our students train hard, perform advanced mental gymnastics, and go head-to-head in competition against other schools. On competition day, there’s more than 150 students plus coaches and teachers, running around in their different colored team t-shirts. It’s fun and frenetic!”

Symbiotic studying 

Mr. Wykes has taught at NSHAHS for since its inception, and has at one time or another taught every science course except physics. Science Olympiad, now in its 39th year nationally, has been a part of NSHAHS’s extracurricular program from its beginning in 2001. Each year, more than 6,000 teams from all 50 states participate in the Science Olympiad nationally, and, thanks to Laurie McMillen, Lander College and the BJE, Jewish high schools can get in on the action.

Olympiad students train for months in their area of choice, which can range from subjects in pure science and mathematics to construction and engineering projects like thermodynamics and aerodynamics. Each area of study has an annual challenge. Knowledge competitions include a test, while engineering challenges require students to solve problems by building objects. For the knowledge competitions, such as astronomy, students work in pairs to parcel out the vast subject matter “Their performance depends on the degree of preparation with their partner. Often the duos develop a great symbiosis, exchanging ideas, encouraging each other, and communicating about a fair division of study areas.” 

NSHAHS finished second in the Astronomy competition. The school also took top honors in the Chemistry Lab competition, and in Bridge Building where a tiny truss bridge designed and built by student phenom, Aviv, was able to support 15 kilos before failing!  But the team score is based on the performance of all pairs in all events, and not necessarily on the number of medals. “That underscores the team aspect of the whole undertaking, and that, to me, is why the Science Olympiad is special.” explained Mr. Wykes. Many Science Olympiad graduates from NSHAHS go on to major in STEM subjects in college and to work as engineers, doctors, and scientists. Mr. Wykes and assistant coach Shabbat Choudhury are excited that many of the students pledged to join again next year, cementing a strong team which will benefit from a year of experience. Recruitment for next year’s team will begin in December.

Mr. Wykes also runs the Research Program at NSHAHS, where students conduct research and complete an investigation of their own design. They then present their findings at high profile regional venues and fairs. He said that while the independent science research direction works well for some students, others love the camaraderie and team spirit of the Science Olympiads.