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Science Olympics organizers talk shop

2019.05.09

by Mohamed El Daly and Alissa Boyle

Alissa Boyle is APEGA’s Outreach Manager, responsible for program development and logistics of the Science Olympics. She works directly with two Outreach Coordinators—Keely McPhee and Natalie Hervieux—to develop challenges, promote the event, recruit member volunteers, and coordinate planning and execution for the province-wide events.

Mohamed El Daly is APEGA’s Director, Outreach & Product Services, and is responsible for providing strategic direction and budgetary accountability for the Science Olympics. Mohamed assists the Outreach team in ensuring each year’s event introduces innovative engagement and learning opportunities for participants, spectators, and community members.

The APEGA Science Olympics have been around for over 40 years and were created to teach Edmonton-area students in science and engineering in a fun, hands-on way. Today the challenges for this event occur throughout the school year and engage students across Alberta, and extend into Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, and even Nova Scotia. In addition to hosting in-person events, we encourage schools and colleague associations across Canada to host their own Science Olympics events by sharing a “how-to” guide – along with the complete challenge writeups – on our website.

 

group of students gathering around teacher

group of students working on a project

group of students listening to a speaker

 

Each year we assemble a group of APEGA members, university students, local teachers, and APEGA staff to design unique challenges for the competition; We promise Science Olympics participants that they can attend the Science Olympics every year from Grade 1 until Grade 12 and never see the same challenge twice!

APEGA runs between six and eight Science Olympics across Alberta each year, hosting over 2000 students from grades 1-12 and approximately 2500 spectators. The event consists of:

  • Classroom Challenge judging: Months before the event day, students receive a challenge and are tasked with working through the engineering design cycle in their schools. This is typically a design/build challenge or something involving technology that requires ample time to familiarize themselves with the program
  • Mystery Challenges: These activities are completely unknown to the participants until the competition begins. Students are given the challenge instructions and all necessary materials during the Science Olympics, and have a limited amount of time to successfully complete the challenge
  • Local exhibitors: Post-secondary student groups, non-profits, and other science-based outreach groups engage spectators in unique challenges and activities throughout the day
  • Creative “extras”: Students and spectators can visit our photobooth and take pictures on the moon, with a robot, or pose with our on-site Lego trophies (in gold, silver, or bronze). Spectators can participate in a “Spectator Challenge” which poses questions about APEGA, engineering and geoscience, and the same topics that the students are learning in their Mystery Challenges. The 2019 Science Olympics also embraced Augmented Reality to turn on display videos and games that are triggered by the t-shirt design.

A crucial part of the APEGA Science Olympics’ success is our methodology. APEGA believes in promoting engineering and geoscience to youth by fostering a love of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and supporting the development of critical STEM skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, communication, creativity, and teamwork. All our challenges are tied directly to Alberta Education curricula, to ensure that students can see real-world applications of the science and math concepts they are learning. We intentionally recruit APEGA member volunteers to serve as event assistants and judges, to incorporate informal mentorship into every aspect of the day.

It is very important to us that we explicitly reward teams for demonstrating the skills necessary for their future success in the workforce; The total potential points for each activity are split evenly between technical success (e.g. device meets the specifications, how well it performs the assigned task, time to complete, etc.) and soft skills (e.g. creativity, communication, teamwork, etc.). Additionally, students’ overall placing is not determined in relation to other groups, but rather based on a threshold model. Multiple teams may win gold, for example, if they score enough points in both technical and teamwork categories. This scoring model emphasizes the fact that there are numerous ways to solve a problem and encourages students to challenge themselves to improve and master these STEM skills and concepts, rather than simply trying to “outsmart” the group in front of them.

Success of this methodology is demonstrated by our rapid program growth (our Edmonton Science Olympics event has doubled registration in two years; growing from 468 students in 2017 to 932 students in 2019). We continue to reach 50 per cent female participation year-over-year, a testament to the importance of designing unique challenges, incorporating mentorship, demonstrating creativity, and rewarding both the process and the product.

Student, parent, and teacher feedback continues to be overwhelmingly positive. Additionally, we are now seeing former Science Olympics participants return to the event – now as Professional Members who want to volunteer and help APEGA inspire and empower the next generation of professionals:

“[The APEGA Science Olympics] has taught my child that engineering and geoscience are very educational and very fun when participating with friends to obtain a common goal!” - Parent

“This a huge event to organize and I am grateful for the opportunity to have my kids involved.  I've been coming for several years now and will continue to!  Thank you!” -Teacher

“I think that many students learn more through the process of Science Olympics (at school and event) than they do through many of their courses.” – Teacher

“I saw so many amazing interactions between professional APEGA members and students. Thank you to all of the APEGA members and volunteers there for being so approachable and connecting our kids to these science professions.” – Parent

The Science Olympics are APEGA’s flagship outreach event and provide students, teachers, and family members with experiences that are intentionally designed to excite and intrigue all ages. For APEGA member volunteers, the event provides a way for professionals to share their passion with the next generation. For teachers and parents, the Science Olympics serves as a shining example of the limitless possibilities of STEM education and STEM careers for their children. Lastly, for the participants, the APEGA Science Olympics provides a safe space for children to collaborate, ideate, test, iterate, and celebrate each individuals’ strengths.