Merrimack Science Olympiad team wants to go all the way to nationals

When you walk into an after school session of the Merrimack High School Science Olympiad team, it might surprise you to see dozens of students having fun while intently studying and working on their areas of research.

But for this team, that’s par for the course. Not only do the 47 members compete for the school on one of the three Science Olympiad teams, but they also work with assigned partners to research and learn about their chosen fields of study.

After a short status meeting where one of the coaches, Sean Muller, science teacher at the high school, explains using “Big Bang” logic that the team’s shirt spells out “Champion” using the symbols for atomic elements and that Flerovium (FL) was chosen for the shirt’s design because it “rips away electrons like we rip away awards from others.” Selenium (SE) was used because “we can be metals or non-metals,” you start to get a feel for the type of kids (and adults) that are attracted to this unique and very cerebral team.

A collective “ah,” as in “ah, of course” is heard around the room following the explanation of the elements used.

They all get it. It makes sense.

“It’s fun,” said Muller speaking of his work with the team. He coaches along with James Davis, MHS science teacher, Sara Campbell, chemistry teacher at MHS, and Lauren Bartetta, two years out of medical training, who helps the team with the biology events.

“It’s great working with kids who have this much fun as they learn about science,” Mueller added.

“Look around the room,” Davis pointed out, “it’s a Friday afternoon and you’ve got 40 kids who prefer to be here studying science instead of doing something else. They are choosing to do science and that’s a cool thing.”

Captains Ben Francis, Alyssa Hobbs, Matt Correia and Matt Jones, all seniors, enjoy the challenge and humor of working with such a “geeky” team. It’s not easy to corral members who constantly want to do and learn more, but that’s what these captains do. They encourage the younger students and challenge the veteran team members to always do their best.

In each of the Science Olympiad competitions, there are 23 events in different fields from astronomy to elastic launch gliders (in the study and build events), explained Hobbs. The team will need to compete and score well in each event to advance. And they all want to advance. Badly.

After all, there is a reputation to uphold. The MHS Science Olympiad team has won the state competition for the last five years, (The A team placing first and B team coming in second) which then sent the team on to the nationals competition for each of those five years. This year, the Olympiads fully expect to remain victorious at the state competition and compete – with hopes to place high – at the national competition being held in Athens, Ga.

At each yearly nationals event, the state teams are encouraged to dress in a costume from their state and the MHS crew is eager to once again show off their plaid shirts, moose hats, moose song (created just for the event), and march in with their “hunter” coaches. It’s just another perk of being on a fun team that constantly thinks outside of the box.

But to get to nationals from where they are now takes a lot of work. It means studying after school, keeping a notebook (that gets routinely checked for progress), doing independent research and having a deep desire to continually find the beauty and joy in all things science.

It also means thinking about your field of study all the time. Shoshana Sernik and Kellie Mathewson who both study entomology, or insects, for competitions know what it’s like to constantly be aware of their topic. At a football game this fall, Sernik noticed some unusual bugs, which she captured and brought to her study partner so they could set and dry the bugs in position and then study them.

When asked what was it exactly they needed to know about the bugs, Mathewson replied with a one word answer – “Everything.”

“Preparation for the events varies, and involves studying materials, getting materials and building and lots of testing,” said Francis. “And then we go back and refine everything.”

There is a little bit of tough love involved with this team, if a student hasn’t done his or her pre-work for the competition, then he or she is still required to go to the event and tell the judge that he or she “has nothing.” It’s not something that any team member wants to do.

Rob St. Laurent, a sophomore team member, put it a little more succinctly.

“It’s blood, sweat, tears and science,” he said.

Matt Jones recognizes that it can be overwhelming, especially for new team members.

“The hardest part is knowing where to start or find the research, a lot of the events are open-ended,” He admits. “That’s where we use our team experience to teach the newer members.”

Funding a team like this can be a challenge. The anticipated budget for this year – presuming that they make it to nationals – will run about $47,000. The cost covers transportation to and from events, housing and food. It also covers the cost of ordering research and building materials leading up to each of the competitions, which is something that, over the course of a season, can quickly add up.

To cover this cost, the team constantly holds fundraisers. They manned a food table at the recent high school craft fair, sell Mylar and latex helium balloons year-round, and they are selling tickets for a calendar raffle where a prize is raffled off for each day of the calendar. Just like the work for the competition, each team member is expected to contribute to the team fundraising effort. It’s all considered part of being on the team and working together.

“The more fundraising we do now at the craft fairs and selling calendar tickets and balloons, the less we have to stand in the cold or rain begging for money at the transfer station,” joked Correia, who has sold his fair share of calendar tickets over the years. One gets the impression though, that if team members are needed at the transfer station to help fundraise, Correia would be one of the first to volunteer. That’s the way it is with this team, if they want something to happen, like go to nationals, they will, as a team, find a way to do it and get it done.

The Science Olympiad team is always looking for corporate sponsors and anyone who might be interested in contributing to the team. For more information and the fundraising efforts, contact the booster club at
soboosterclub@gmail.com