Students challenge area teens in Science Olympiad

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Science and Technology Honors Program Director Diane Tucker, Ph.D., says her students are not content to come to UAB and have a challenging major such as chemistry, neuroscience or engineering.

UAB Science and Technology Honors students Meredith Hubbard, left, Evan Colmenares and Charlotte Mae Kent organized and hosted on campus the regional arm of a national Science Olympiad. The students took the project on as part of their three-semester leadership preparation sequence.

“Sci Tech students want to go beyond that and work with faculty and make a contribution to research and development while they’re undergraduates,” Tucker says. “They signed up to work hard, make a difference and get the most out of their time at UAB.”

This year’s group of undergraduate honors students are no exception. Three students spent the past year organizing the regional arm of a national Science Olympiad in which more than 200 Alabama high-school students competed for top prizes on campus Feb. 19. The students took the project on as part of their three-semester leadership preparation sequence.

“This group realized that a number of students who apply to UAB and within our program have done Science Olympiad in high school, and it was a very stimulating experience for them,” Tucker says. “They thought the competition was a way they could get prospective students to come to the UAB campus, see what we have available here and let them know this program exists. If their interest in science grows, there is a place for them to study at UAB that hopefully will be a dream come true for them.”

The students worked with the Alabama coordinator for Science Olympiad and the UAB administration to make arrangements to host it and notified area schools. They started working on the program in spring 2010 and had a clear plan and a date in place by the end of that semester.

“We most likely are the first tournament ever to be organized and implemented by students alone,” said Charlotte Mae Kent, UAB Science and Technology Honors student and one of the tournament directors. “When outsiders find out that we are undergraduates, they are shocked — because it is hard to convince faculty to run an event like this.” Students Evan Colmenares and Meredith Hubbard joined Kent in facilitating this event.

Science Olympiad engages nearly 6,000 students across the country in rigorous, standards-based challenges. Alabama student teams from regional school systems in Birmingham, Dora, Alexander City and Montgomery competed in events that emphasize teamwork and group participation. They also conducted experiments, took written tests and competed head-to-head with their inventions.

“Science Olympiad is a great opportunity to learn more about science and engineering while having fun,” Kent said. “Hopefully, this opportunity enabled more students to fall in love with science and choose to make their career in a scientific field.”

The UAB Science and Technology Honors curriculum requires its students to lead a science project. This year one group chose to host the regional Olympiad as a service to area high schools.

“With the rising cost of gasoline and budget cuts within public school systems, we realized there was a need to have a centrally located tournament in Alabama,” Kent said.  Past Olympiad competitions were held in Tuscaloosa, Huntsville and Mobile.

To raise operating funds, the students wrote grants applying for funding from the Alabama Power Foundation, Vulcan Materials and the Alabama Section of the American Chemical Society. They also raised $1,000 to award a scholarship to underwrite the costs for a deserving team that lacked financial resources to attend.

“We want students participating in Science Olympiad to leave UAB with a better sense of the awesome science that occurs here,” Kent said. “Most high-school students do not get to go inside of a college chemistry lab, much less use one, before entering college. This is a wonderful opportunity to showcase the beautiful labs we have at UAB.”

Each of the students involved in the Science Olympiad also are involved in a research lab on campus and working to complete their undergraduate honors thesis.

Because of their schedules and the enormity of hosting the Olympiad, the team asked some fellow students to take the lead on parts of implementing the plan. Several other students wrote some of the tests for the competition and helped proctor during the event.

“This group has been exemplary,” Tucker says. “They’re high-energy, organized, purposeful and have had an attitude that they would figure out how to make the Science Olympiad competition happen. The event is a tribute to their professionalism.”