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Need to solve scientific problems? McCook Central students can help after ‘impressive’ Science Olympiad

First-year team medals all 10 students at first state competition

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Emily Tuschen and Sophia Havard, members of the McCook Central Middle School science olympiad team, competed in the Electric Wright Stuff competition at the 2022 South Dakota Science Olympiad State Tournament March 26 in Vermillion. The team took fifth place overall in the middle school division and saw all 10 members of the team earn medals for their work.
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SALEM, S.D. — There’s a first time for everything, and for the McCook Central Middle School science olympiad team, the first time competing at the state tournament turned out to be a highly successful endeavor.

The team medaled every single member of the 10-student squad in a variety of categories March 26 at the South Dakota Science Olympiad State Tournament that was hosted at the University of South Dakota.

“This was the first year we’ve tried it,” said Beth Eickman, a science teacher at McCook Central Middle School who serves as the coach for the team. “And considering we only entered six events out of 23 and medaled in them all, I thought we did really well.”

A science olympiad team strives to solve scientific problems in a competitive atmosphere. Team members are given tasks based on scientific principles, and students work out their own solutions to each problem before they arrive at the competition. In one challenge, students may design a small bridge with specifications that it be as light as possible while simulataneously supporting as much weight as possible.

Overall, the team took fifth place in the B Division, competing against such schools as Yankton Middle School, Sacred Heart Middle School and Mickelson Middle School. Six teams placed in the B Division, which consists of middle schools, and three teams placed in the C Division, which consists of high school teams.

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The South Dakota Science Olympiad is a program devoted to improving the quality of science education, increasing student interest in science and providing recognition for outstanding achievement, according to the competition website. Team competition is patterned after competition at the Olympic Games, with challenging and motivational events ranging from earth science to physics.

The McCook Central team formed earlier this year when the district implemented an intervention period that was created to help students work on subjects to help improve their Smarter Balance test scores.

“That was intended to help kids fill gaps and improve test scores, so my goal was to take the top end of those who were already scoring proficient or advanced in those tests and help them improve too,” Eickman said. “So we just picked some kids.”

Eickman said she began with 27 students and let them choose a particular area of science study in which they were interested. When some students or groups selected similar areas of study, the group would hold qualifying events to pare down the groups for state-level competition. As the year progressed, some of the students who were involved in other extra-curricular activities stepped aside to tend to those obligations.

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Gavin Kipp and Nolan Mutziger, members of the McCook Central Middle School science olympiad team, took home gold medals for their work in the Bridge category at the 2022 South Dakota Science Olympiad State Tournament March 26 in Vermillion.
Submitted Photo

In the end, Eickman ended up with a group of 10 students who made the journey down to Vermillion last week.

The 10 students were arranged in six groups of two, with each group taking on a different portion of competition.

The top finishers for McCook Central were Nolan Mutziger and Gavin Kipp, who took a gold medal award for their work in the Bridges competition. Students designed and built bridges designed to support an increasing amount of weight. The lighter the bridge and the more weight it can hold, the better.

“They were very excited. Those two were very meticulous,” Eickman said. “I was shocked. We saw some at the competition that were very sloppy, but these two had very precise cuts and sanded things down and were very symmetrical.”

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Ashley Huls and Callie Kaufmann took a silver medal in the Crime Busters category, which simulates the work of forensic scientists. Students analyze substances like hair samples and fingerprints and work to determine the guilty party out of a set of suspects.

Also taking a silver medal were Bree Smart and Hadley Flogstad, who competed in the Ping Pong Parachute competition, which saw students design a rocket to launch a ping pong ball into the air. The ping pong ball would then open a parachute and drift the ground. Scores are determined by the height the rocket reaches and the amount of time the ball floats in the air.

Three teams also took a bronze model home. The Food Science team, composed of Leah Feterl and Flogstad, the Electric Wright Stuff team, composed of Sophia Havard and Emily Tuschen and the Write It, Do It team, made up of Smart and Josalyn Traupel.

Clark Bennett, a math instructor at the University of South Dakota and the state director for the South Dakota Science Olympiad, said medaling in every category they entered, and coming in fifth overall in their division, was quite a start for a group that had never participated in the event before.

“That was very impressive. To take home hardware in all their events, that was very, very impressive,” Bennett said. “That’s a very good sign. I do hope they decide to come back and participate again.”

This was the 38th year of the competition at Vermillion, and Bennett said organizers are always hoping to see teams show up to show off their skills and insight into the problems placed before them. It’s a great way to foster an interest in science studies for both those who are new and those who are experienced.

He said he has seen students come up with innovative and insightful ways to solve problems as they take part in the olympiad, which is something they can carry with them back to the classroom and into their lives.

“It’s a great supplement to the classroom, and it goes along with a lot of the principles they are already teaching, just from a slightly different direction,” Bennett said. “It will enhance STEM courses and maybe more people will get into STEM, that’s the main hope of it - to enhance and create the love and appreciation for science and science-based activities.”

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Members of the McCook Central Middle School science olympiad team placed fifth in their first-ever South Dakota Science Olympiad State Tourmanent March 26 in Vermillion. Pictured in the back are Callie Kaufmann, Ashley Huls, Nolan Mutziger, Gavin Kipp, Emily Tuschen and Sophia Havard. In the front are Josalyn Traupel, Bree Smart, Hadley Flogstad and Leah Feterl.
Submitted Photo

For Eickman, the event is a way to engage in friendly competition in an environment not solely based on athletics or other group activities.

“It’s definitely an opportunity to do something that they might be interested in that’s not sports-related. It’s also just a chance to really delve deep into some topics that we don’t have time to do during the regular year,” Eickman said.

She credited the hard work of the students and the support from their parents as being instrumental to the success of the team in its first year. Juggling schedules for travel and practice can be daunting, but the moms and dads did what they could to make sure everyone was where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there.

Eickman is in her 34th year as a teacher, and is in her 23rd year teaching for McCook Central. At 55, she had retirement on her mind in the near future, so she’s not entirely sure what will be in store for the team next year.

But she knows there is likely continued success in store for those students who want to flex their scientific skills and bring home more medals for McCook Central. And whoever is the next to guide them may learn a little something themselves.

She should know, because it happened to her.

“I’m not an expert on some of these things, and I learned a few things too along the way,” Eickman said.

Results

Division B

  • 1st, Yankton Middle School
  • 2nd, Sacred Heart Middle School
  • 3rd, Mickelson Middle School
  • 4th, Dakota Valley Middle School
  • 5th McCook Central Middle School
  • 6th, Elk Point-Jefferson Middle School

Division C

  • 1st, Brookings High School
  • 2nd, Yankton High School
  • 3rd, Elk Point-Jefferson

As a result of their first-place finishes, both Yankton Middle School and Brookings High School have been invited to participate in the virtual National Science Olympiad Tournament hosted by Caltech University May 13-14.

Related Topics: SCIENCESALEM
Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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