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Ready to Launch: Utah students compete in Utah Science Olympiad

Published: Saturday, April 12 2014 7:24 p.m. MDT

Danny Glover, left, and Aaron Pullan, both of South Hills Middle School, get ready to compete in the rotor egg drop, an event where small, unpowered helicopters are dropped and rely on wings or rotating blades to slow their fall and protect the egg they're carrying, during the Utah Science Olympiad at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 12, 2014.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — There was a lot riding on the two bottle rockets Martin Clemens and Cody Merrell brought to the state competition of the Utah Science Olympiad at the University of Utah Saturday.

"It's always really stressful because if we win (the competition) we're going to Florida and if we don't, we're not," Merrell, a ninth-grader from Fairfield Junior High in Kaysville, explained. "Our team's gone the last 18 years."

Merrell and Clemens were competing in the "Egg-O-Naut" event, in which teams of two have 10 minutes to assemble and launch as many as two bottle rockets, each carrying an egg as its "passenger." The objective was to build rockets that would stay aloft the longest while also preserving the egg upon landing.

The Fairfield Junior High team, though reigning champions in the middle school division, was just one of 74 taking part in the Utah Science Olympiad's 23 events aimed at challenging the capabilities of around 900 sixth- through 12th-graders from around the state.

“Science Olympiad encompasses aspects from all science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, competitions," Ashley Nicholes, Utah Science Olympiad program coordinator, said. "In this academic track meet, students run the gamut of challenges from research and knowledge to engineering and building.”

Both Merrell and Clemens said the bottle rocket was their favorite of the events they competed in Saturday.

"I like how it doesn't have to do with guessing," Merrell said." It's all got to come with what you've built and how well you will build it. It's a proof of skill."

They encountered some difficulties, though, due to the windy conditions in the parking lot where the competition took place.

"It's just not a good day for flying," Merrell said. "I feel confident we could have won without the wind. That's nowhere near what we could have done."

"Cody's a little depressed about it," Clemens said.

Clemens' mother, Monica, said she has been attending the Olympiad for 15 years to watch her children compete.

"I have 10 children, not all of them have done it, but most of them have — eight of them — and they've all ended up in science-related careers," she said. "I credit that to the Science Olympiad. … They get a broad idea of what's out there."

Fairfield Junior Science teacher and team coach, Dennis Erickson, said he enlists the help of parents in preparing his students. He said the school has been around for 20 years, competed in 19 Olympiads and won the last 18 of them.

All six of his own children competed in the Olympiad at some point. And while the support he gets from the school's various principals has varied, he's committed to continuing for the benefit of his students.

"When you do the science fair, you think through the processes, but a lot of the time it's done by parents," Erickson said. "This is done by the kids. It's great. Kids are the future. We've got to invest in that."

Pamela Tafili, a seventh grade science teacher at Midvale Middle School, was there coaching a team of eighth-graders, Daisy Xiong and Sai Parsawar. The duo only had a week to put together their rockets, as the school worked to get students into as many events as possible.

"It was good but then the egg cracked," Parsawar said.

"I hate my parachutes," Xiong said.

"I was impressed," Tafili offered, noting how little time they had to prepare.

Egg-O-Naut event coordinators and judges Jeff Stephenson, Shaun Gladden and Mark Jones are all contract engineers at Hill Air Force Base. Stephenson said he's coordinated an event at the Olympiad for the past 13 years, first working on a chemical reaction and heat transfer event before moving to the rocket launch.

"We have way too much fun, so we keep doing it," he said. "It's a way to keep busy with the kids, keep busy myself and have fun launching."

Stephenson said he loves being involved with engineering projects and working with the students as they work together. They learn that science can be both fun and educational, but that's just one of many lessons.

"I think it's just a life learning experience," he said. "Things aren't just handed to you in life. You've got to work for things. You've got to learn to work with each other and complete these tasks. I had one girl who came today and had never touched that rocket and she did it and had one of the best times."

Gladden said he likes that the students get experience interacting with adults who aren't their parents or teachers. Jones appreciates that it makes them away from video games.

"It's just hands-on experience, creative problem solving," Jones said.

"They learn from their failures," Gladden offered.

"They learn from each other," Jones added.

Email: emorgan@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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