Mountain View High School’s Science Olympiad team finished second in this month’s state championship, earning medals in 15 out of 22 events, including first-place medals in Ecology, Hydrogeology and Electric Vehicle events.
Just three years ago, according to head coach Anita Wood, the Science Olympiad club’s haphazard meeting schedule had the team regularly placing last or next-to-last. They had never won a medal, nor qualified for state.
Wood told her son, a team member, “If you really want to do this, you’ve got to get 14 friends and start working.”
And work they did. From that obscure beginning, the team has rocketed to regionally competitive status, winning its first medal in 2014 and qualifying for state every year since 2015. Mountain View now fields a competitive Black Team and recreational Gold training Team.
Black Team members commit every Friday and Saturday night to study sessions, working until 10 p.m. with material Wood said can be equivalent to Advanced Placement or first-year college coursework. They prepare for challenges as diverse as answering questions on the minutiae of plate tectonics, completing chemistry labs or building working hovercraft.
“These kids are committed and they’re having a good time,” Wood said. “It’s a treat to get to do something you’re passionate about.”
Science Olympiad tournaments test the depth and breadth of students’ knowledge, pairing traditional academic exams with practical applications such as building a robotic arm. Once students begin their events at the tournament, they’re on their own – with no advice from coaches – so adult mentors emphasize students’ personal development as well as scientific expertise.
“We talk about them building confidence and handling weird curveball situations,” Wood said.
Only the first-place winner from each state – or region, for large states like California – moves on to nationals, so a populous region with multiple high-performing teams can only advance one team even if it fields many that would be nationally competitive. Northern California, according to Wood, is a notoriously tough region, with many STEM-heavy schools competing for dominance. This year’s NorCal state winner, Mira Loma High School, won the national championship last year.
The Mountain View team’s strength, Wood said, comes not only from its late-night study sessions, but from the team’s character. Eschewing the traditional hierarchy of varsity and junior varsity, they named their teams after colors. With six juniors and five sophomores, Mountain View is also unusually age-diverse, despite the potential benefits of packing its numbers with seniors. In developing criteria for selecting the competitive team, the kids took a comprehensive approach, including specialized or offbeat skills and knowledge.
With a few months to rest before next year’s competition guidelines are released and the study begins anew, Wood said her kids are ready. It’s not just about winning medals – those late-night practice sessions are also a haven for those with a passion for science not every teenager shares.
“The key thing is that they come to the workshop and there isn’t a stigma,” she said. “What grade you’re in, what your passion or interest is – are you earth science, are you life science? – they’re excited about science.”