Controlled chaos: EM Science Olympiads say they would recommend it to others

By LeAnn R. Ralph

ELK MOUND —  It’s like “competitive school.”

At least, that’s how Austin Altmann, a senior at Elk Mound High School, describes Science Olympiad.

Austin’s Science Olympiad teammate, Gabe Anderson, also a senior at Elk Mound High School, says that the Science Olympiad meets are both very intense and quite a lot of fun.

Austin says that Gabe is the “idea man.”

Gabe says that Austin is the one who makes his ideas work.

Austin and Gabe, along with more than a dozen other students from Elk Mound High School, traveled to Ohio for a Science Olympiad meet earlier in January after being invited along by Boyceville High School.

Boyceville has had a highly successful Science Olympiad program for a number of years.

Elk Mound started the Science Olympiad program last year with 30 students.

This year the program has 60 students.

What is it?

So what is Science Olympiad?

At its most basic, Science Olympiad is a competition among high schools. Each school has multiple teams that solve specific problems in specific categories.

But that’s where the simplicity ends.

The problems are highly technical, and the solutions involve math, physics, biology, and sometimes building a machine or another device to achieve a task.

“The teams are split up, and you can only have seven seniors on a team. There are usually 15 people on a team, and you have to fill up a certain number of events in order to participate as a team,” Gabe explained.

“You assign the different people to different events, usually three or four events. If you place in the events, then it is counted as your team placing. The team can place overall at meets as well. You are scored as a team,” he said.

“A school can have multiple teams. Gabe and I are a group, and we compete in our own events, but we have other teams from our school competing in those same events,” Austin said.

“We do technical problem solving. Sometimes you have to do an experiment and then take a test on it,” Gabe said.

“And we do experimental design. They give you random materials, and you have to design an experiment from it and do a write-up on it,” he said.

“They usually do not give any directives on what it is supposed to be about. It’s like a physics lab,” Austin said.

“We are doing Code Busters too, which is a new event. We decode things. It’s like cryptography,” he said, adding that it involves modular algebra “and some weird math I don’t understand yet.”

“A lot of other schools have had this for so long, they know what to study. With our school, you need to learn these things and see how well you can learn them as fast as possible. It has mostly been random for us, to see what’s going to happen,” Austin said.

Austin is planning to study aerospace engineering at the University of Minnesota.

Gabe is planning to attend UW-Stout with a double major in computer engineering and some other form of engineering, possibly plastics.


At the Ohio Science Olympiad meet, Austin and Gabe competed in Experimental Design, Technical Problem Solving, and Compound Machine.

“In Compound Machine we had to make a series of two levers and then you’re supposed to use those levers to determine the weight of a mass using a known mass and unknown mass. Ours did not really work very well. Then you have to take a test on pulleys, levers and incline planes,” Gabe said.

One of the tasks at the Ohio meet involved finding the bending of light with laser pointers, Austin said.

“They give you all these different prisms and sources of water, so we were a little out of our league,” he said.

Ohio “gave us a huge perspective (on what we need to achieve). This is a national base. It’s not like how we compare to our district. This is how some of the top schools in the country are doing and how we stack up against them,” Austin said.


The Science Olympiad program at Elk Mound is starting to hit its stride.

“We started with 60 this year, so we doubled in size (over last year). We really grew. It’s something different and something new. Something different from athletics. They get to meet other people and work with other people,” said Jodie Simet, a science teacher at Elk Mound High School and the advisor for Science Olympiad.

“Our region has been described as being much more intense than the other regions. So we have the really hard competition. If we would go north or east of Wisconsin, the competition is a lot easier,” she said.

“We have all the other good schools pushing us,” Austin said.

“Boyceville is a big one. They have done so much to help us. They invited us to Ohio. And they have motivated a lot of kids by what they can do. A lot their kids get medals at the national competition, and we have the potential to do that,” Simet said.

“Boyceville has such a strong program and such strong parental support. We’ll get there eventually,” she said.

Science Olympiad, as it turns out, is an activity where students from small schools in rural areas can excel.

“Sometimes I think kids think, ‘I go to a small school, and we don’t have the classes, and I’m not as smart as they are.’ But we can surpass them, and we have in some events,” Simet said.

“That’s what is really cool, seeing how you compete against a big school, how a small school can compare,” Austin said.

Menomonie High School, for example, is represented at all the local Science Olympiad meets. There are also many schools from the Twin Cities area as well as Rochester.

“Boyceville has to limit their competitions (at Boyceville) to 60 teams … it is growing across the state. Colfax has added Science Olympiad too,” Simet said.

Most of the schools that competed at Ohio were private schools, and Boyceville and Elk Mound represented Wisconsin at the Ohio meet, she noted.

Controlled chaos

“Science Olympiad has been more competitive for me than sports,” Austin said.

Austin participates in swimming at Elk Mound and will be on the golf team this spring.

Gabe does not do any winter sports, but he will be in track this spring.

“If you compare it to a track meet, at a track meet, you stand around for a long time, and then you compete for one minute, then you stand around again. For Science Olympiad, we usually have the first section of events free, then we go to our event, then we only have a couple of minutes before the next one,” Gabe said.

“You are basically running back and forth between rooms trying to find where you’re supposed to be,” Austin said.

“At River Falls, the events will be in different buildings, so we’ll have to be cruising to get where we need to be,” Austin said.

Austin, Gabe and other Science Olympiad team members from Elk Mound competed at the UW-River Falls invitational on January 25.

“We actually appreciate when we get lunch,” Austin said.

“We usually don’t get to eat lunch at competitions. We have events scheduled all through the center of the day. We usually have the first and last section open,” Gabe said.

“At the competition, there is no time to prepare other than what you did outside studying for it. We probably have 20 minutes to figure out the place. Then we have the first event open, so we have (a little extra time) to get used to things. There’s a little bit of controlled chaos,” Austin said.

Advice for others

When it’s all said and done, would Austin and Gabe recommend Science Olympiad to other students?

The answer is — yes.

“If somebody is interested in Science Olympiad, and they wanted to do well, they would focus on taking physics and chemistry and then mathematics to go along with it. It helps to know those things. They correlate closely, at least with the events that we do,” Gabe said.

“I would say that it is more fun than it sounds. It is test taking, but there is competitiveness behind it. Through all the years of school, you’ve gone through all this science and math, and it’s fun to put all your skills against other people and see how well you stack up. It’s like competing at school,” Austin said.

“There are a wide variety of events. Anybody can do it.  They have building events, so if you’ve been really good at shop, you could do that. Or if you’re good at biology, there’s entomology,” he said.

“There’s a wide area for people to go into. For some of the events, though, you have to be sure you are willing to put in the time. You can’t always just wing it. If you don’t actually know anything about it, like if you put me into entomology, I wouldn’t know anything,” Gabe said.

“I would say the building events are the roughest. There’s so much time outside and so many specifications. We can just show up to any event. They have put in all kinds of outside time, or they can’t even compete,” Austin said.

“The building events, the instructions are really vague, so you’re not even really sure what you have to make,” Gabe said.

One of the benefits of Science Olympiad is that some students who would never work together in school, such as students from a shop class and physics students, get to work together on Science Olympiad events, Simet said.

Science Olympiad also allows for parental involvement. Two fathers of Elk Mound students have been working to help their daughters build items for competition and have become good friends themselves in the process, she said.


In early December, Elk Mound students competed at the invitational at Boyceville.

The following students earned medals in their events:

Anatomy and Physiology — Makenna Borofka and Anna Sessions (second); Adam Gottchalk (third); Kaileigh Stangel and Emily Abramowicz (fourth).

Invasive Species — Jacob Ausman (third).

Chemistry Lab — Katie Johnson and Jamie Solem (second).

Scrambler — Morgan Fuller and Kevin Reynolds (second).

Experimental Design — Austin Altmann and Gabe Anderson (second).

Technical Problem Solving — Austin Altmann and Gabe Anderson (fifth).

At the UW-River Falls Invitational on January 25, Elk Mound Science Olympiad students earned 12 medals.

Designer Genes — Anna Sessions and Makenna Borofka (third).

Disease Detectives — Anna Sessions and Carissa Weiser (fourth).

Entomology — Cole Hollingsworth and Gabe LaRock (fourth).

Geologic Mapping — Corrine Zimmer and Emily Finder (fourth).

Code Busters — Austin Altmann, Gabe Anderson, Matt McLaughlin (fourth).

Elastic Launch Glider — Colleen Olson and Jordyn Abramowicz (second).

Bungee Egg Drop — Amy Hoffman (third).

Write It Do It — Elly Frieberg and Leia Kufhal (third).

Anatomy and Physiology — Anna Sessions and McKenna Borofka (first); Kaitlin Hollister and Lindsey Kohls (third).

Experimental Design — Austin Altmann, Gabe Anderson and Ben Mack (first).

Sustainability — Austin Altmann and Gabe Anderson (first).

The next Science Olympiad event is the regional meet at Menomonie High School on March 1.