Olympics STEM Excitement for Matthews Students

Photo by Cyma Shapiro

Photo by Cyma Shapiro

On Thursday afternoons at the Matthews Elementary School, 18 fourth- and fifth-grade students meet to learn new techniques, gain knowledge, foster teamwork, and work together.

By the excitement, alone, one might believe they are gearing up for an upcoming traditional sports event. However, in this case, sports uniforms are nowhere to be found. Instead, this group is employing preparation, commitment, speed, dexterity, knowledge, fortitude, passion, application and focus in the hope that they may place in next year’s (May) North Carolina Science Olympiad (NCSO) competition. They are the only elementary school in Matthews participating in this sport.  

Make no mistake - the whoops, hollers, excitement level and words of encouragement emanating from this classroom would belie the best of a Friday night football game; this group is clearly here to win. And, like all sports, the emphasis remains on the overall team effort - to work through a series of competitions consisting of different hands-on, interactive, challenging and inquiry-based team events involving biology, earth science, environmental science, chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering and technology toward an end-goal.

Photo by Cyma Shapiro

Photo by Cyma Shapiro

“They already have a natural love of science,” says fifth-grade Elementary Math and Science teacher, Jamie Worth, who is also the group’s “coach.” Now in her sixth year of running a group, she adds, “my job is to (also help them) have the most fun.”

To be included here, fourth and fifth graders must submit an essay and receive a recommendation by their homeroom teacher. The best essays and recommendations result in being chosen for the group. This year, the team is primarily girls - 14 of 18 participants. While Jamie can’t quite explain this phenomenon, the opportunity is not lost on her as a “female teacher getting more female involvement,” fostering “more girl scientists…This is the year of the girls,” she adds. “I am excited to lead a team with a way different dynamic than ever before!”

For Hadley, now in her third year of NCSO, she’s here “because I like science. My mom is a biology teacher. I like being part of a team and trying new things…I hope to shape my career out of it.”

Addie, also in her third year of participation, said being given a challenge and participating in the events provides excitement and a sense of camaraderie.

And, Amelia added, besides the requisite essay and recommendations, she believes the teacher picks the participants who are the greatest “team players.”

It is an approach which offers education, competition, and opportunities for working together. “Those kids who give the best effort, are willing to work hard, and stay positive,” said Jamie, “are picked. It’s not (necessarily) the smartest children.”

On this particular day, the second week of the session, the “Duct Tape – Build a Boat” challenge required students to “design and float a boat that holds the most marbles.” Within seconds, each student began excitedly creating their structure. One by one, they placed their boats in the water. The majority sank, with an overflow of design “holes.” But, the overall intent was to teach buoyancy and surface area - a valuable lesson which clearly showed that intention and creativity, alone, do not necessarily equate to success.

“Who cares if you fail the first (time),” said Jamie. “Make a plan, make it better. Do better. I think most were more than willing to update their designs based on what they saw worked and didn’t.  The students are natural observers so they could easily figure out a new and better approach,” she said.

In the end, most participants realize that patience, diligence, and perseverance will go a long way to achieving the end goal.

Photo by Cyma Shapiro

Photo by Cyma Shapiro

“These kids don’t realize how hard this is,” said Jamie, referencing the fact that the younger 4th graders are often disappointed with not learning all the concepts and/or losing during final competition, compelling them to return the following year with a greater hunger and passion to win.

To train for the final event, students attend the weekly classes and are required to study for approximately one hour per week. Within the group, students may choose three of 18 competitions offered with such categories as “ProGamers,” “Weather Permitting” and “Pasta Tower.”  In many instances, the questions and categories reflect classroom work already being mandated (and taught) by the North Carolina Course of Study (grades 2-6).

In addition, parents often volunteer their time to coach for one event and are involved in supporting their students outside of practice, as well.

To help participants prepare, Jamie creates a different study guide for each student. This will be the basis of their year-long study.  The work demands logical and critical-thinking skills, retention and a greater understanding of all the basic concepts. “I remember how difficult it was,” Jamie said. “It’s not an easy thing to do!”

This past May, at the finals, some Matthews children placed in events and others medaled; the group also won the NCSO’s (regional) Spirit Award given for the best sportsmanship, collaboration, and teamsmanship – an award Jamie says she’ll take “any day.”  She hopes to again win this award in 2019. “We spend more time building a team than teaching,” said Jamie.”

Having participated in NCSO during eigth grade, at Northeast Middle School in Charlotte, Jamie sees this as an extension of her own life and her own passion. She has a fervent her desire to foster more interest in these fields.  “It doesn’t look like I’m in the science field, but here I am analyzing data and doing things scientists do!” she said. “I want students to realize that science doesn’t just mean a person with a lab coat. It can be anyone.”

NCSO is a nonprofit organization with a mission to attract and retain K-12 students entering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees and careers in North Carolina. In 2018, more than 980 K-12 teams representing over 18,000 students and 85 counties in North Carolina participated in NCSO activities.