Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

High School Students and the Science Olympiad

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

High School Students and the Science Olympiad

Article excerpt


The qualitative study examines student involvement in Science Olympiad. Five high school students participating in Science Olympiad are interviewed both before and after a regional tournament. Interviews address student motivation and interest as well as challenges and rewards. Findings suggest a link between student involvement in Science Olympiad and musical talent, out-of-school science activities, and college science major/career aspirations. Recommendations for teachers and researchers conclude the paper.


"The purpose of the Science Olympiad is to challenge students, to increase their interest in science and technology, to encourage them to find out more about scientific and technological careers, and to improve the quality of science instruction throughout the nation" according to founders and national directors, Jack Cairns and Gerald Putz (1990). Students and science teachers consider Science Olympiad to be an outstanding competitive activity-based team competition promoting critical thinking and problem solving (Baird & Shaw, 1996; Johnson, Maruyana, Johnson, Nelson, & Skon, 1981; McGee-Brown, Martin, Monsaas, & Stombler, 2002). In 2004, "over 14,000 K-12 schools participated from all 50 states and Ontario" (Putz, 2004, p. CC6). Now in its twenty-first year, Science Olympiad is credited for promoting science literacy within the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) as students conduct laboratory investigations, content inquiries in the life and physical sciences, and technology projects. Students also apply their scientific knowledge and technology skills in constructing and operating musical instruments, robots, rubber-band-powered airplanes, catapults, and balsa wood structures based on precise design criteria and performance specifications.

A recent issue of Academic Exchange contained an article on high school science teachers serving as Science Olympiad coaches (Robinson, 2003). In that article, nine coaches commented on rewards and challenges, competition and cooperation, and the relationship between coaching a team and teaching science in the classroom. The current article shifts focus from science teachers serving as coaches to high school students who take part in Science Olympiad. The article is a descriptive qualitative study reporting what students say about their own involvement in Science Olympiad, and it amplifies the voices of students who are often seen but not heard as educational researchers either direct their attention elsewhere or examine student learning outcomes without listening to what students say about the purpose and intent of their actions (Abernathy & Vineyard, 2001; Corbett & Wilson, 1995; Robinson, 1995).

Goals & Methods

This study centered on what motivates high school students to engage in Science Olympiad [SCIO], how their participation relates to their academic and career goals, and what they learn from their involvement in this academic competition. Findings are meant to be credible and authentic (Guba & Lincoln, 1989) to the experiences of the students involved in the study rather than generalized to the larger population of SCIO participants. Recommendations are offered for three purposes. One is to encourage the recruitment and retention of qualified students in the SCIO by teachers and administrators who coach and sponsor teams in their schools. Two is to help science teachers, science education policy makers, and researchers understand why students choose to participate in this voluntary activity. And three is to invite further research into this and other science competitions.

Late in 2003, high school science teachers serving as SCIO coaches from western New York were asked if any of their students would volunteer for this research. Soon, a coach identified five students who agreed. These five students were on a team of 12 including 7-seniors, 4-juniors, and 1-sophomore. …

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