Solon High School and Solon Middle School have earned some bragging rights again this year. Both schools’ Science Olympiad teams qualified for the Nationals and placed in the top 5 in the nation for the prestigious science competition. And from a school that perennially does well in Science Olympiad, this year’s nationals meant a little more.

“We had a difficult year, motivationally,” said Cherese Fiorina, Solon High School Science Olympiad coach. “Some of the competitions were in person, but many, including nationals, were still virtual. It is hard to get kids as motivated when there is not a trip involved, so for them to do as well as they did, we are really proud.”

But she and Solon Middle School Coach David Brewer, and the Science Olympians from Solon did not want to let their school’s legacy of success be tarnished by pandemic challenges.

“We have had a lot of success in the Science Olympiad here in Solon. We have qualified for nationals all but two times out of the last 25 years,” said Mr. Brewer, a retired NASA engineer and researcher who now spends his days coaching the team, along with co-head coach Deepa Nair.

“Our high school team has been National Champions 5 times,” said Ms. Fiorina. “We even had a period where we won 3 in a row.”

The success for the Science Olympiad is due to three things according to the coaches: top students, district support and lots of hard work.

Science Olympiad is considered an extracurricular activity or club.

But students in middle school have to try out to make the team. Mr. Brewer said 130 tried out and he had what he called the “painfully difficult task” of selecting just 36 students to participate. He said he tells students that they have to make it on their own merit, no preference for those who participated previously, or whose siblings have participated. Each year is a new team. Meetings are Tuesday and Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Solon Middle School, and those meetings are “not optional.” Then there are competitions which require being at the school as early as 6 a.m. on a Saturday to get on a bus and go to an invitational competition between other middle school science olympiad teams.

For high school, the team starts with 80-90 students which then is paired down to 60 for competition. Another reduction of members is made before the state and national competitions.

“If you want to be competitive, you should plan on working on Science Olympiad 10 to 15 hours every week,” said Ms. Fiorina. And that doesn’t include the day long and weekend long invitationals.

She said she counts on the Science Olympiad captains to find students who will help the team compete. The past year, the team captains included Lindsey Maurer, 17, who is Ms. Fiorina’s daughter, and Scott Zhao, 18. The team captains are selected by their peers.

“We advertise on the fall PA announcements, at the club fair, and then we really go recruit people,” said Lindsey Maurer. “We look for students who have science, technology, and problem solving skills.”

The problem is the best students for Science Olympiad are also the busiest students, with band, athletics, and other club participation. So part of the puzzle of the Science Olympiad team is working out who is available to compete when and where, because the high school team is competing every weekend between January and March, and that’s before it gets to the more-involved state and national competitions.

Captains are responsible for scheduling students in groups of two for each of the olympiad’s 23 test events. Lindsey explained how they had several spreadsheets to plan out the schedule.

“I have one spreadsheet for who is available for this day, two more spreadsheets organized as events by students and then students organized by events. Then you have to look at who has competed in the past, what their statistics were, and who has competed together in the past.”

Let’s just say it’s a logistical problem. But one that students like Lindsey, who is going to Rochester Institute of Technology in the fall to study computer science, find challenging yet fun to solve.

Just like the 23 Science Olympiad tests that the students compete for each week. They have tests in life, personal and social science, earth and space science, physical science and chemistry, technology and engineering, inquiry and nature of science.

These are divided into test events like Anatomy and Physiology, Bio Process Lab, Disease Detectives, Forestry, Green Generation, Dynamic Planet, Meteorology, Road Scholar, Rocks and Minerals, Solar System, The Wave, Crime Busters, Sounds of Music, Storm the Castle, Bridge, Flight, Roller Coaster, Wheeled Vehicle, Codebusters, Experimental Design, Fast Facts, and Write It Do It.

A large part of the competition is following the rules to build or design your project to fit them.

“For example, every year there is going to be a wheeled vehicle competition, but we don’t know what kind of vehicle, there is going to be a flight or bridge design, but we don’t know what kind. We find those things out just after labor day, and then the students work to build them in time for the competition,” said Ms. Fiorina.

This means students must start working right when school starts for the year.

And by the time they go to the competitions, the students and coaches are bringing lots of items with them.

“It takes about an hour to pack everything on the bus, and then we have to unpack it into our ‘home base,’ or classroom, at whatever school we are competing at,” she said.

Solon hosts its own invitational which can include as many as 70 schools. According to the coaches, schools want to come to the Solon competition because of the success the school has had nationally, as well as the fact they know it will be a well-organized and well-judged event.

Ms. Fiorino said part of the competition is a learning process from the judges.

“We have students who find out at regional competitions that their project, or their design, does not fit the rules, so they have to talk to a judge and find out why. They also have to defend their projects to the judges. This teaches real life skills, like presentation and conflict resolution.”

The dedicated students in the high school this year had to compete in the Nationals on the same day the school was having their prom. The competition was virtual, so the students were at Solon High School, but many like Lindsey had to go directly from competition to prom.

“I literally put on my makeup between my last two tests,” they (uses this pronoun) said. “Once my tests ended, I had to put on my tux and get to the prom.”

While the talented students reap many benefits from the program, like awards and resume-building accomplishments for college, the coaches themselves give of their time for one reason.

“Well it’s certainly not for the money,” laughs Ms. Fiorina. “We see how much the students enjoy it, how they grow as people and leaders, and you just have to support them. You kind of get sucked in. We get compliments when we travel about what a nice group of students we have, and we really do. But we do it to see them grow and succeed.”

“Once you become involved, you just want to see the kids succeed. You want to see what they can accomplish,” Mr. Brewer said. “And the parents are so helpful to the coaches. We couldn’t do it without them.”

“As for the most rewarding part of the entire experience – it has to be the kids I see grow into beautiful young adults. These kids, with a myriad of personalities, have made me experience such profound happiness; I am astonished by their vibrant selves, and on many occasions been brought to tears by their growth in both intellect and character. I am floored by their humility, proud of their accomplishments, and especially fond of their ability to make all of us laugh with joy as well,” said Deepa Nair, the middle school co-coach.

For Lindsey Maurer, she said she learned how to be a team player.

“I started out thinking I only had to worry about myself, work on my own projects, get the gold. But what the Science Olympiad taught me is how to be a team player, how to work with others. I learned how to teach, motivate and inspire other people. You learn that is what it takes to make a better team.”

And the burgeoning stock of hardware, from their state, regional, and national competition success, isn’t a bad reward either.

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