State science competition lets kids show — and stretch — their abilities

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter



What goes up …

… can teach you a lot about science.

Title winners

Camas won the state title for high schools on Saturday. ExCEL Academic League, a group of Clark County homeschoolers, won the state title for junior high teams. They will advance to the National Science Olympiad on May 20-21 at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

That is one of the principles that brought students from all over Washington to Clark College for Saturday’s state Science Olympiad.

“Up” took several routes: It was signaled by the “whoosh!” of a rocket launch or by the faint tap of a helicopter rotor hitting a gym ceiling, like a moth beating its wings against a lamp shade.

Camas senior Devin LeBlanc built one of those helicopters.

“The goal is to have it fly as long as it can. It’s all trial and error,” said LeBlanc. “This is the culmination of 30 hours of work.”

Actually, corrected his coach, 30 hours is only what LeBlanc put down when he logged his time.

“He’s put in 100 hours since October,” said Ron Wright, Camas High coach.

To describe the final product as “delicate” would be an understatement.

“The thinnest balsa sticks you can get are a sixteenth of an inch,” LeBlanc said.

The film stretched across the balsa to form the solid surfaces is thinner than Saran Wrap, he said. The helicopter is powered by a rubber band that weighs 1.97 grams; you wind it 750 times and then let the helicopter go. (There’s a cranking device that speeds things up.)

LeBlanc’s first flight lasted about 53 seconds; his second attempt was just shy of 42 seconds.

The Science Olympiad program gives the 800 students who competed at state an opportunity to see scientific principles in action and get engaged in hands-on projects.

“Because they want to do well for themselves and their teammates, they can’t help but learn science,” said Wright. “It combines the theoretical and the practical.

“The Wright Brothers went through the same process,” said the Camas High coach.

LeBlanc acknowledges a shared interest with those aviation pioneers.

“I like anything that goes into the air and stays there,” the Camas senior said.

LeBlanc plans to take it to even higher levels, so to speak, when he studies aerospace at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, next school year.

Teammate Danika Jones said the program offers the fun of science without the academic pressure of classwork.

“I’m in the science magnet program, and always trying to get the highest test scores,” Jones said. In Science Olympiad, however, “If you fail, you have another tournament. And you’re able to try a wide variety of things.”

There are 24 events in both high school and middle school divisions, split roughly into thirds, said Garry Lee, a sixth-grade teacher at Vancouver’s Jason Lee Middle School.

“About a third involve test-taking, a third are in the lab and a third are build-it events,” Lee said.

As Lee watched, one of his students was getting ready to launch her pop-bottle rocket from a spot on the campus lawn.

“You can never do this in the classroom,” Lee said. “This is hands-on science — the best possible.”

Seventh-grader Teaghan Cowles, assisted by teammate Courtney Stump, hit the launch button. With a spray of pressurized water, Cowles’ rocket blasted off from the lawn and rose into the sky. On its descent, the wind caught the rocket and carried Cowles’ project into a tree.

In addition to snagging her rocket, the tree cost Cowles some valuable time in the air. She clocked the flight at about 14½ seconds. “It was going to go a few more seconds” if the tree hadn’t been there, she said.

Despite the mishap, “Bottle rockets is probably the most fun,” Cowles said as she considered the slate of events. “You get to launch something.”

Qualifiers will advance to the National Science Olympiad on May 20-21 at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.