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Burrell students to stretch science muscles in state Olympiad

| Thursday, April 25, 2013, 1:31 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
From left, Burrell Huston Middle School sixth-graders Alex Capsambelis, Lucas Ciesielski and Michael Fiorina on Wednesday, April 24, 2013, work on their 'Mission Possible' Rube Goldberg-inspired project for the Science Olympiad.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Eighth-graders Nicole Kristof, left, and Ally Spohn from Burrell's Huston Middle School work on a parallel circuit using batteries, wires and lights on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. They will be participating in the school's Science Olympiad team.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Burrell Huston Middle School sixth-grader Jake Hughes fine-tunes his mousetrap vehicle, which relies on string tension to go various distances on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. The car will be used to compete at the Science Olympiad.

Burrell science teacher Bob Campbell believes programs like the Science Olympiad can help boost students' interest and ability in science-related fields.

“It's a competitive world,” said Campbell, who teaches at Huston Middle School. “I want the U.S. to be number one in the world in science and math again.”

For at least the fifth year in a row, a team of middle school students will participate in the state Science Olympiad competition, which will begin Friday morning at Juniata College near Altoona.

Students from across the state will demonstrate their skills in science-related subjects, including astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth sciences and forensics, for a chance to advance to the national competition at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

Campbell, who sponsors the middle school team along with teacher Shaun Reddick, said his team finished second in the state's southwest region behind Shady Side Academy's Fox Chapel-based middle school.

The top seven schools from the region are moving on to the state competition.

Franklin Regional Middle School was the only other school from the Alle-Kiski Valley to compete in the middle school division; that team came in third and also will be at the state finals.

In the high school division, Burrell, Franklin Regional, Plum, Shady Side Academy and, for the first time, New Kensington-Arnold's Valley High School competed at the regional level.

Franklin Regional, Plum and Shady Side advance to the state level.

Noting his students will be up against some large schools with greater resources, Campbell said he isn't expecting the team to reach the national competition. He's more interested in them doing well on an individual level and improving previous scores.

Nicole Kristof, an eighth-grader, said she enjoys the Science Olympiad because it gives her an opportunity to learn on her own, rather than having a teacher show her how to do things.

“It's a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun,” said Nicole, whose events will include Shock Value, which is about electricity, and Dynamic Planet, an earth sciences-focused topic that will feature glaciers this year.

Ally Spohn, another eighth-grader on the team, said she gets her love of science from her father, Mark Spohn, another science teacher at Burrell. Ally will compete in Shock Value, Food Science and Write it Do it, which requires one team member to write a description of something the other member must build.

Trinity Key, an eighth-grader, and Michael Fiorina, in sixth grade, said they enjoy the teamwork involved in Science Olympiad events.

Trinity will compete in the event that involves identifying rocks and minerals.

Michael helped build a mousetrap-powered car; a Rube Goldberg-inspired chain-reaction machine; a “boomilever,” or lightweight cantilevered wooden device; and the device that will allow them to drop an egg attached to a parachute without breaking the egg.

“I really like how there's all kinds of gadgets to work with,” Michael said.

Michael McKown, a sixth-grader, said he also likes the building events. He helped with the mousetrap car and a lightweight helicopter that must stay in the air for as long as possible.

McKown said he also likes being able to apply some of the subjects he's learned in his science classes to the projects.

“They're a great group of kids,” Campbell said. “They're polite, and they work hard.”

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or

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