The plane soared up roughly two stories, twisted midair, looped over itself twice and crash-landed in the soft dirt only feet from where it launched. “Yes! Fourteen seconds!” sang out an onlooker with a stopwatch as the two-man team raced to rewind the rubber band for Try 2.
In another section of the massive Modesto Junior College ag pavilion, junior high competitors dropped weights on empty bottles, using the resulting puff of air to propel a pingpong ball toward a target rectangle.
In Yosemite Hall, across campus, high schoolers aimed wheeled vehicles, calibrating the power of the push to hit a specific distance. Behind El Capitan Hall, bottle rockets powered by pressurized water sailed skyward.
“It’s fantastic,” said Brian Sanders, dean of the Science, Math and Engineering Division. The day of science activities followed a night hosted by the Astronomy Club with 300 visitors. On Tuesday, the first school tour arrives to see the museum.
“I feel like we are opening it up. It’s what we’ve been dreaming of,” Sanders said.
The long-delayed museum opening will be April 4, with school tours Tuesdays through Thursdays, and public hours 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through the rest of the school year.
On Saturday, families that came for the Science Olympiad checked out the museum and planetarium show. Junior high and high school students from 25 schools hung with teammates between events in a minicity of colorful shades that sprung up in front of the science center. The smell of grilling hot dogs and hamburgers wafted westward from a Geology Club fundraiser.
At the La Loma Junior High space, science teacher Lee Ollar kept track of 34 contestants. The central Modesto school fielded two teams this year, part of a science, technology, engineering, arts and math focus in school electives that also had digital arts students photographing the event.
The Science Olympiad got lots of kids studying, Ollar said, but its real benefit will not be known for years.
“People in science careers say it was some kind of experience like this they had when they were 8 to 14 (that got them hooked),” Ollar said. “Plus, there’s exposure to scientific method, to logical process and to seeing something through – anybody can start anything.”
“It was a lot easier than I thought it would be,” said seventh-grader Rebekah Davenport, returning from a contest on entomology, the study of insects. Teammate Chloe Swett was not so confident. “Especially the domain names and the orders – there are so many similar names, but with completely different pronunciations,” she said.
Swett was also competing in Crime Busters, where teams identify metals and powders. “It’s fun. Last time we got to burn something,” she said.
“It’s a life-changing experience, really,” said eighth-grader Carter Neumann. Besides the camaraderie and academics, he said, “There’s always that moment when you screw up and have to laugh at yourself. It’s really fun.”
Over at the Turlock Junior High area, volunteer moms Lori Carlson and Kim Hawley tracked 15 students who came out for their first year in the contest. The Turlock campus has no class or formal after school club for the event, which made finding space and time to practice a challenge, the women said.
“We’re hoping to find a willing teacher who can be that glue,” Carlson said.
“They just finished a robotics section (in class), and there’s a robo-cross contest. It really does dovetail with the science,” Hawley said.
The Turlock team wore event t-shirts having some fun with Newton’s Second Law of Motion: “May the mass x acceleration (or force) be with you.” Modesto High’s team shirt included this note: “Solution: Duct Tape, W-D 40.” A bright blue shirt worn by contestants sitting in another area proclaimed: “I’m not lazy, I’m energy efficient.”
Standing in white lab coats with a Prescott Junior High logo, seventh-grader Karson Wells and eighth-grader Gillian Allen savored their high score in Write It Do It, creating “a Lego dude in a boat.” Allen was shown a finished object, writing detailed instructions for Wells, who then built it, sight unseen, from Allen’s written notes.
“It’s going to be this – that was the first sentence,” Allen said. “I tried to use as much description as I could, and make even the complicated things very clear. The last thing you want is to have vague terms when you’re trying to build it,” she said.
The Elementary Science Olympiad will be held from 7:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. March 28 at Hickman School, 13306 Fourth St., Hickman.