Catapults, rockets put learning into action at Stanislaus Elementary Science Olympiad

Science in action at Stanislaus Olympiad

About 400 students from 20 schools competed in Turlock on Saturday in the 22nd Stanislaus County Elementary Science Olympiad. Here's a look at a few of the contests.
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About 400 students from 20 schools competed in Turlock on Saturday in the 22nd Stanislaus County Elementary Science Olympiad. Here's a look at a few of the contests.

About 400 students joined in the 22nd annual games of the Stanislaus County Elementary Science Olympiad on Saturday, and Mother Nature just had to horn in. Wind occasionally may have helped or hindered competitors in two outdoor events — the paddle boat race and the water rocket blast — but organizers tried their best to keep it from being a factor.

The boat races, in which rubber band-powered paddles sent watercraft down a wood-box channel, were put on hold a bit, for example. “You see my waves?” Kristin Vilhauer said, looking toward the water-filled channel. “We have to wait until there isn’t any current, wait until the wind dies down,” said the teacher and Science Olympiad adviser at Walnut Elementary, the school that hosted the event.

Students raced for distance and, for those whose boats made it all the way to the end of the box, speed. Adhering to size limits and other specifications, the teams made and tested their boats at home, learning through trial and error. Test boats often prove too heavy to be propelled, or too top-heavy to remain upright, Vilhauer said. And sometimes, at race time, nerves prove a team’s undoing. Kids forget to wind their paddles backward to send the boat forward.

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Teammates and cousins Cole and Cameron Kelley, both in fourth grade at Walnut Elementary, watch their entry in the paddleboat race at the 22nd annual Stanislaus County Elementary Science Olympiad at their Turlock school on Saturday, March 30, 2019. Deke Farrow

Cousins and teammates Cameron and Cole Kelley, both fourth-graders at Walnut, said they learned from seeing others make that mistake, so were careful to wind their propeller correctly. They also made two boats, each with a triangular bow. But one hull had a uniform depth, while the other sloped upward toward the bow, and that’s the one that went faster and was raced.

On the school field, water rockets with parachutes were being launched with compressed air. The goal was for a rocket to stay aloft as long as possible, and volunteer Carson Carranza, a Modesto High sophomore who started competing in Science Olympiad in seventh grade, said wind definitely played a part. More than once, a big, well-made parachute got a lift and carry from a good gust, he said.

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Walnut Elementary School’s gold team, Caleb Grossman and Alison Coughlin, launches a tennis ball from its catapult during the 22nd annual Stanislaus County Elementary Science Olympiad at Walnut Elementary School in Turlock on Saturday, March 30, 2019. Deke Farrow

Inside, at the catapult competition, Walnut fifth-grade teammates Caleb Grossman and Alison Coughlin talked about their contraption while they waited their turn to try to launch tennis balls into a plastic crate.

The kids modified a catapult design they saw online. Its power comes from stretching bungee cords, and they dutifully charted which combinations of cords would send a ball how far, they said.

That was important, Alison said, because they’re not told until the last minute how far they have to fire the balls — 2, 3, 4 or 5 meters. But they had to balance their testing with the wear and tear on the bungees, Caleb added, because weakening them with too much stretching could affect performance.

Twenty-five teams from 20 schools competed in 17 events at the Olympiad. Top teams in individual events earned medals, and the teams with the highest point totals across the board won trophies.

Fair Oaks Elementary of Oakdale won first place, unseating defending champion Hickman Charter, whose “gray” team placed second. Cloverland Elementary, another Oakdale School, placed third.

“It’s great if they learn some science, but the main goal is to turn them on to science,” Science Olympiad arbitrator Steven Murov, Modesto Junior College professor emeritus of chemistry, said of Saturday’s event. “It’s to encourage them to study, especially when they get to junior high and high school. Don’t avoid the good courses in science, take those good courses.”

Watch for Olympiad full results at