Valpo’s TJ Middle School ready for 24th trip to Science Olympiad nationals
By Christin Nance Lazerus firstname.lastname@example.org May 11, 2013 10:22PM
Megan Rahn, 15 and Claire Bartusch, 14 talk with Science Olympiad coach Rich Bender about transporting their project to the upcoming Science Olympiad Nationals Thursday evening at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Valparaiso | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 13, 2013 6:47PM
VALPARAISO — Megan Rahn, Zhuri Bryant and Abby Mitchell huddled over a lab table Wednesday afternoon with a few objects — a washer and a piece of string — and a timer.
Their mission: design an experiment using those objects, and write up a lab report on their results in a short amount of time.
It was only practice, but the three members of the Thomas Jefferson Middle School Science Olympiad team are hoping that it pays off at the national competition on May 18 at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
“I think we all want to medal, which is top 6 out of 60 teams across the country,” Mitchell said. “So you’re competing against the best.”
The group’s event, experimental design, is just one of the 23 events that make up the middle school division. Fifteen students in grades six through nine compete in three of the 23 events, which range from constructing catapults and mousetrap cars to interpreting maps and identifying objects in deep space.
The school day had ended at 2:45 p.m., but team members were hard at work finding ways to work smarter, better and faster. Thomas Jefferson Science Olympiad coach Richard Bender likens the competition to a track meet.
“You schedule them according to how best they can help the team in terms of personalities, skill types and how the schedule shakes out,” he said.
Competing against teams from across the country may be nerve-wracking for some schools, but Thomas Jefferson students are used to the pressure. It will be the 24th year that the school’s Science Olympiad team has competed at nationals, all under the tutelage of Bender and co-coach Carol Haller, who are both science teachers at the school.
Thomas Jefferson Middle School captured regional and state titles to qualify for nationals. Since the schedule varies from competition to competition, some students have multiple events going on at the same time and have to learn new events with just a few weeks preparation.
“Between regionals and state, I gained Rocks and Minerals with only two weeks to prepare, and then we won state in that event,” said seventh grader Joe McMurtrey.
The team practices about 10 hours per week, usually after school and on Saturdays. It depends on 12 adult and 6 student volunteers to help manage all aspects of practice.
“In addition to smart, dedicated kids, we need adult mentors to help them as well,” Bender said.
Veronica Chevalier, a senior at Valparaiso High School, competed on the team in eighth and ninth grade and has come back every year since to help with the team.
“The coaches become like family to us,” Chevalier said. “I moved here from Wheeler and my mom let me tour both middle schools to see which one I liked best. I remember Mr. Bender saying that I should really try out for Science Olympiad, and I said, ‘No way that’s just for nerds.’ And sure enough I loved being on the team.”
Bender said he preaches the benefits of being involved in Science Olympiad to break through those stereotypes.
“I tell them the benefits of being part of a team and striving for really high goals, such as regional, state and national competitions,” Bender said. “There are many events, so you can find an area of expertise for anyone who’s willing to work.”
Munster High School, which won the state title in the high school division, will also be competing at the national competition