Seniors Lauren Barlass (left) and Randi Block (right) started a Science Olympiad club this year for Hillsdale College students interested in volunteering as coaches. Lauren Barlass | Courtesy

Every March, hundreds of middle school students across the country wait in suspense to see how much weight a tower they designed and built can hold. The event is a part of Science Olympiad, a competition for middle-school and high-school students involving a variety of science-related tasks.

“Weeks of work for moments of panic,” senior Randi Block said of the event at the Science Olympiad regional competition.

This year, Hillsdale students will have an opportunity to participate as Science Olympiad coaches through a new campus club dedicated to coaching Science Olympiad participants at Hudson Middle School. Block and senior Lauren Barlass, who have both coached Hudson students for the past two years, will carpool to Hudson, Michigan, to coach the 15-student Science Olympiad team for two hours each week.

They will prepare the students for Science Olympiad competitions, including the regional tournament, which was held at Hillsdale College the last few years and will be held in Adrian College this spring. Last year, the Hudson Middle School team missed a slot in the state Science Olympiad competition by just one point, Block said.

Barlass said Science Olympiad gives students a chance to explore science outside the classroom.

“It empowers the kids to do science because a lot of them have a misconception that they aren’t smart enough for it,” Barlass said.

Block competed in Science Olympiad for two years during high school. She said her time competing and coaching has been worth it, despite her busy schedule.

“There is something for everyone…a lot of it is not as ‘scientific’ as you would think,” Block said.

The 23 different events of Science Olympiad offer a wide variety of topics for participants. In the Towers event, students compete to see which team can build the strongest but lightest wooden tower. In Experimental Design, students design, conduct, and write a report on an experiment using materials provided at the event.

Students learn about how to identify different foodborne illnesses in the Disease Detectives event, which Barlass coaches. This year, students are asked the cause and solution for outbreaks in various scenarios.

In the Hovercraft event, students build a self-propelled, air-levitated vehicle to be the fastest and heaviest it can be within a weight limit. In Crime Busters, students must solve a crime by analyzing hair, fingerprints, fibers, tire treads, shoeprints, and other forensic evidence.

Barlass and Block coach Disease Detectives and Anatomy and Physiology respectively and Microbe Mission together. Barlass and Block said they loved coaching the middle schoolers. Barlass said she loved coaching Disease Detectives so much that she will pursue a career in public health after graduation.

Above all, the Science Olympiad club exists to give back to the community, Block said.

“It’s very rewarding to see the personal growth in the students,” Block said. “I’m very proud of my kids.”

Block said her notion of what it meant to be a Science Olympiad coach changed over time.

“I thought I had to prepare lectures…but so much of what I’ve learned is that it is giving kids material to study on their own,” Block said. “It’s equipping them to learn on their own…very similar to how Hillsdale wants to teach.”

Associate Professor of Biology Jeffrey Van Zant, the club’s faculty adviser, said it gives students opportunities to get excited about science by giving them hands-on experience. Van Zant said he developed his love for science at an early age by exploring in the woods.

When he helped run the Invasive Species event, which tested students’ knowledge of local and national invasive species at Science Olympiad Regionals, he tried to get many real specimens for the students to identify. He said hands-on, competitive science helps younger students delve into science outside of the classroom.

“They will take a subject further,” Van Zant said. “You don’t get to build a lot in class.”

Van Zant said he wants to encourage students at Hillsdale to join the club because of the value of science.Two of his children competed in Science Olympiad last year.

“We cannot have a truly informed citizenry if they do not have a working knowledge of science,” Van Zant said.