April 17, 2014 | Vol. 117 -- No. 52

Washington's Science Olympiad puts students' ideas to the test

A little over 50 years ago the Ideal Toy Company introduced a board game called Mouse Trap.

Paul Delaney
Interlake High School Science Olympiad participant George Sun prepares his demonstration as judges Norris Brown, Mark Haiar and Cameron Bennett observe.

And while the hundreds of students who gathered at Eastern Washington University last Saturday for the 2014 Washington Science Olympiad state tournament may have never even seen the game, let alone play it, for those who do recall it, there might have been some childhood flashback moments for parents and others.

"The goal is to create a Rube Goldberg type of device that does a chain-reaction," advisor Shem Thompson said of his Interlake High School in Bellevue team that was one of 40 teams taking part in "Mission Possible" competition at Reese Court.

That, too, was one of the goals for Mouse Trap players who rolled the dice and slowly built a contraption that would catch opponent's mice if they landed on the wrong space.

Mission Possible was just one of over two-dozen parts of the competition at the Olympiad, an event coordinated by EWU's College of Science, Health and Engineering and founded in 1986. Other activities included astronomy, forensics, geology and genetics.

Competition took place across much of the EWU campus and drew teams of high school and middle school science students from throughout the Northwest. Camas High near Vancouver, Wash. was the champion in their division. Frontier Middle School from Moses Lake won their division. There were no West Plains schools in the competition.

The Interlake entry's goal was to create a chain reaction and have a light turn on.

"They have to dump something in, it has to sort it, have a chain-reaction (where) this causes this, causes this," Thompson explained. "At the end of 80 seconds they're supposed to have the light turn on."

And they did just that, team member George Sun said. "We were pretty successful," Sun, a junior, said, grading the result, "Maybe an eight" on a scale of 1-10.

The participants start with a box of miscellaneous components and have a set time to put it together. The challenge, Sun said, was thinking of a series of random energy transfers and fitting them together.

While Interlake's project involved physics, Sun plans to eventually focus his interest in science towards the human body when he heads to college.

Another entry was that of Galen Bishop and Max Albrechtson from Columbia River High School in Vancouver, Wash.

Bishop, a senior, explained how a marble started the seemingly complicated process in which its weight tripped a switch which activated a laser that in turn popped a balloon releasing water into a cup with salt.

The two substances mixing would form an electrical conductor completing another circuit. That turned on a motor, which moved a candle to light a fuse that would catch a string on fire that released a weight that turned on a light.

Whew, the thought of devising such a contraption could give someone a headache.

"We had to touch it too many times," Bishop said. For every time the experiment was touched points were subtracted. Plus, the team earns no points for any portion where there is human interaction.

"It's really just having the most number of transfers between different forms of energy," Bishop said.

In short, "You start out by pouring a mixture of marbles, golf tees and paper clips, do a bunch of stuff and light up a light bulb at the end," Bishop explained.

The odd mixture of items used to start the process added points for sorting.

Judging their score, Albrechtson, a junior, suggested they were average to just below, "A four or five," on a scale of 10, he said.

And as could be expected, the two have done the same experiment a couple of times without aid of touching and it went perfect Bishop said.

Another Vancouver team, that of Waverley He and Sophie Cong, both seniors, are from Mountain View High.

While their end result fell victim to some design flaws when a cup used to help supply a conductive solution of salt and water tipped over, knocking loose a wire, Cong felt their effort was an overall success.

Cong gave their project, "Probably an eight, I think the concept was cool and trial runs were fine, I think it was just today that the tower wasn't secure enough."

Judging the Mission Possible segment were volunteers, Cameron Bennett, an engineer, Norris Brown a business analyst with Kaiser Aluminum and Mark Haiar, a product engineer, also with Kaiser.

"It's remarkable how different they all are," Brown said.

Winners from the Washington competition move on to nationals May 16-17, hosted by the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Paul Delaney can be reached at pdelaney@cheneyfreepress.com.

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