Eighth-grader Trent Giever and seventh-grader Frannie Ello released their balsa-wood-and-nylon helicopter inside the gym at Yakima Valley Community College on Saturday and watched it climb all the way to the ceiling, where it hovered for several seconds before descending gracefully back to the floor.
This, the helicopter-flying event at the South Central Washington Science Olympiad Regional Tournament, was the fun part, the part where Trent and Frannie got to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The hard work was over.
The weeks of early morning meetings — an hour before class started at Kennewick’s St. Joseph’s Middle School — had paid off. A crowd of onlookers cheered. The helicopter, powered by a rubber band, soared. And St. Joseph’s took first place in the helicopter competition, one of 23 events in the Science Olympiad.
“They actually get an opportunity to apply science,” teacher Catherine Valiant said. “We worked for four or five months, and the day itself is a lot of fun.”
About 100 students from middle schools in Kennewick and Yakima competed in the events, which were coordinated by staff from YVCC, Heritage University and Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences.
Events included building and testing robots and helicopters, as well as conducting experiments in anatomy, chemistry and botany — with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It was the second year of the South Central Washington regional. Prior to last year, local students had to compete in either the Spokane or Western Washington regional, something that was often cost-prohibitive, educators and students said.
“Usually they just didn’t go,” said Sanna Zeigler, a chemical hygiene officer at Heritage and one of the event’s directors.
This year, though, the One Voice Community Foundation awarded the Olympiad a $16,000 grant that covered registration, materials and transportation for participating schools. That included two teams each from Franklin Middle School in Yakima and Highlands Middle School in Kennewick.
“The fact they had enough engagement to put together two teams, I just think that’s cool,” Zeigler said.
Diana Rhodes, chairwoman of the PNWU anatomy department and another of the event’s tournament directors, concurred. The appeal of the event to teachers and students alike is that it’s participatory and hands-on.
Also, unlike a typical science fair, for which a student might do the science on his or her own, the Science Olympiad is inherently collaborative. To succeed, the students must work together, which, in addition to teaching teamwork, really helps the them become invested in the projects, Rhodes said.
“Just seeing them run around campus with their goggles and their white coats is pretty fun,” she said.
Frannie, the St. Joseph’s seventh-grader with the helicopter, agreed.
“It’s fun,” she said. “And it’s an interesting way to learn.”