It’s crunch time for the Oak Park and River Forest High School Science Olympiad team as they finalize details on projects and take practice tests before making their way to the state tournament for the fourth consecutive year.
Katie Kralik, science teacher and Science Olympiad coach at OPRF, said this year’s 15 student varsity team is composed of all grade levels. There will also be seven alternates attending the competition.
The team will head to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the state tournament on April 22, the first to be held in person since the COVID-19 pandemic. The Science Olympiad team, which began eight years ago at OPRF with only seven students and now ebbs and flows around 40 participants throughout the school year, had competed in the last three state tournaments virtually.
“This year, now that the state is back in-person, they have just been beyond excited that they get to go actually in-person to this competition,” said Kralik, praising her team for the hard work that has led them to compete against almost 50 other high school teams from across Illinois.
Tom Kennedy, an OPRF physics teacher, is excited for students to experience the in-person event at U of I and all that comes with visiting the campus, including an award ceremony.
“I am excited this year that OPRF students will be able to participate in that,” Kennedy said, adding he is enthused for the build events, where students are building model bridges and testing their weight capacity.
The Illinois Science Olympiad is part of an international organization formed to improve the quality of science education, hoping to increase student interest and provide recognition for achievements in science education for both students and teachers K-12.
Kennedy, who started the team at OPRF, said the team is on a great path.
“It’s been great. I was very worried, starting it in the beginning,” Kennedy said. “It started with five very dedicated students and then to see it grow throughout the years, and eventually we made state. We are going to go to a physical state competition. It is a great trajectory that we are on. I am very proud of being a part of this.”
This year, students will be participating in 23 different events, announced in early September, including test, lab, and build events.
Certain events, like anatomy and physiology are test based, and others have a lab component, like the forensic event, which will have students identifying fingerprints, blood types, and splatter patterns amongst other categories to help solve a made-up crime.
This year, the students competing in anatomy and physiology events will be tested on the respiratory, digestive, and immune system. Student teams also participate in build events, which this year includes “trajectory” as a category. Kralik said the participating team is building a catapult.
“They build the device and then they have to test it at all different settings to be able to replicate whatever distance the event judges call for that day and how accurately they hit the target,” Kralik said.
The road to state included two invitational meets, which helped students gauge what they need to work on for state.
“That is where our students really do a lot of their learning,” Kralik said. “The first one, I tell them we go to really get a fire lit under us, like ‘oh that is how hard I needed to study for this.’”
The team also attended a regional meet in late February, coming in third and qualifying for state.
“What was really cool at that event is that every single student who was there won a medal in at least one of their events, both on varsity and junior varsity,” Kralik said, adding they won medals in 33 of the 46 events. “It was really something.”
As the competition approaches, students will be coming in every day to work on polishing up their test answers and getting those catapults to throw further, but for Kralik they have also shown their skills outside of the competition.
“I am really proud of how they have come together as a team,” Kralik said. “I am really proud of the school spirit that they show. They want OPRF to look good when we are competing against other schools. They really are concerned with showing that we are good people, we are respectful scientists, that we cooperate, we collaborate. That to me has been an even prouder moment than the science knowledge they are gaining.”