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Budding scientists prepare to compete on state level

| Saturday, April 3, 2010

Burrell's middle school teachers are steadily building their Science Olympiad program.

For the second year in a row, a contingent of Huston Middle School students will travel to Juniata College near Altoona on April 30 to compete at the state Science Olympiad.

The event combines science knowledge with hands-on skills in topics ranging from meteorology to crime-scene investigations.

Sponsored by teachers Bob Campbell and Shaun Reddick, Burrell's middle school team placed fourth in a regional competition held March 24. The region's top five teams move on to the state level.

In addition to Huston Middle School, middle school teams from Franklin Regional and Shady Side Academy will compete at Juniata. At the high school level, Franklin Regional, Plum and Shady Side Academy will be represented.

Campbell said the program at Burrell is growing slowly and has been improving each year.

At the regional level, Huston Middle School students placed sixth or better in 15 of the 23 events, including a first place in the solar system category and second in categories involving computers and fossils. They were up against 16 other schools in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Campbell said that's an impressive finish considering Burrell is competing against schools that purposely incorporate Science Olympiad topics in the curriculum. Although Campbell and Reddick work as much as possible into classwork, Campbell said students still do a lot of studying and preparation on their own.

Taylor Lender, an eighth-grader, competes in the ornithology event, which requires her to learn everything from the Latin names to the calls of 200 birds. She refers to her Peterson Field Guide as her "bird bible."

Lender also competes in events that pertain to electricity, alternative energy and a pentathlon that requires students to answer timed questions in a variety of topics.

"I like that you get to study different fields that you wouldn't in class," Lender said.

Reddick said teams can consist of only 15 competitors, requiring students to compete in more than one event.

"You have to be well-versed in a number of fields," he said.

Reddick and Campbell said each school district typically has its strengths. Campbell said Burrell usually does well in events like meteorology and topographical mapping, while Franklin Regional excels in biology and ecology.

Reddick said the events that involve constructing mechanical elements have been a weakness for Burrell, but he noted they earned a fourth-place medal in an airplane-building event at regionals.

Josh Wertkin, a seventh-grader, said his airplane would have done even better if it hadn't hit a wall during the competition. Rather than measure distance, the competition rates pre-built ultralight planes on how long they remain in the air. Wertkin said his plastic-winged plane could have doubled its 15 seconds aloft if not for the brush with the wall.

Wertkin is confident his catapult will do well once he tweaks the wooden contraption's dimensions to meet Science Olympiad standards.

Seventh-graders Richelle DeBlasio and Nathan Walker both pointed to fossils as their favorite event.

"You get to learn what Earth was like before humans," said DeBlasio, who also competes in topics regarding plate tectonics and biology lab work.

Walker also enjoys the experimental design event: "They give you a pile of things and you have to make something."

Amber Fennell, an eighth-grader, said she prefers an event called science crime busters, which involves crime-scene investigation.

"It's the most interesting," she said. "I like that it's always a different answer."

Although those involved in Burrell's program concede winning a team medal at states is a long shot — Burrell placed 31st of the 35 middle school teams last year — Campbell said he's hopeful the group will win medals in some of the individual events this year. He also would like to get into the top three in the region in future years.

"It's a good program," he said. "It's teaching kids to use real-world skills."

Additional Information:

Three-time winners

St. Joseph High School led the pack at the Pittsburgh Regional Science and Engineering Fair in late March.

For the third time in four years, the Catholic high school in Harrison brought home the Gold Cup for winning the most entries at the fair, which included more than 100 public and parochial schools.

Students complete independent research projects and are judged on their papers, presentations and ability to answer questions from judges.

St. Joseph students placed in six events, including three first-place awards in medicine/health, biology and physics.

Senior Ariel Schroeder, the gold-medal winner in medicine, was awarded a scholarship through Seton Hill University. Schroeder also was one of two participants selected to represent the state at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in California in May.

Other local schools with awardees include Fox Chapel Area High School, Franklin Regional Senior High and Middle schools, Freeport Area Senior and Junior high schools, Mary Queen of Apostles in New Kensington and Mother of Sorrows in Murrysville.

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