Lessons I Learned from Science Olympiad

04 Feb 2019 - Vivian Hir

For those that are unfamiliar with Science Olympiad, Science Olympiad is like a decathlon. There are 23 events that cover all the natural sciences and there are 15 members on a team. The topics are very specific, such as genetics, acoustics, or optics. Some are study events while others include a building component. It has been my first active year doing Science Olympiad, and I can't say how much of a positive effect it has had on me. Even if Science Olympiad is a huge commitment and can be stressful, participating in 3 events (Sounds of Music, Protein Modeling, Fermi Questions) has not only made me know more about specific areas in science but also how to deal with failure and mistakes. Although I have dealt with quite a few failures in school, those were mostly tests and few related to long term projects. The failures I had to face in Science Olympiad were related to building projects, including building an instrument and creating a model for a protein. Here is what I learned from these events:
Protein Modeling: 
In this event, I used a tube to model the protein backbone along with adding side chains. In my opinion, the building component can be viewed as an art project as you have to make sure what you model is exactly what it looks like on the 3D modeling program. Before, I would focus so much on perfection as I wanted it to be perfect on the first try. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. After a few months, I realized embracing imperfection resulted in a lot more progress. I needed to make mistakes in order to do better. When I was focused on being perfect, this resulted in very slow progress as it wasn't efficient. I used to make such a big deal if the bends weren't correct or if the alpha helices weren't positioned correctly. One step down may result in two steps forward. I know this sounds like a platitude, but protein modeling taught me that success is rarely a straight line. You needed to go down in order to go up.
Another important thing that Protein Modeling taught me is how it shaped my interests and future majors and careers. At first, I chose Protein Modeling because it featured CRISPR. Now, I not only find biotechnology fun but also biochemistry. If you keep an open mind, it will make you feel more confident in your choices and pursuits rather than staying in the same place.
Sounds of Music: 
The lessons I learned from this event share some similarities with protein modeling, except that Sounds of Music is more like an engineering project. Before I built the instrument, I thought it would be pretty easy to build the instrument. I mean, if a guy on Youtube can make a tutorial on how to build a PVC flute that had a perfect pitch and solid sound, then I can definitely do that. Actually, it was a lot harder than how the man portrayed it on YouTube. What I thought would only take a month to build and modify was actually 3 months. Considering the fact that I have little building experience as I am not part of the robotics team, I was quite stubborn in the beginning because I thought that after my first try, I wouldn't need to make another flute. Who wants the hassle of restarting another project? Obviously, I was wrong. As a slightly more experienced engineer (but still an amateur), I learned that your first version will NEVER be the best. Your second or other versions WILL be better if you learn from what you did wrong in the first version. Even if my second flute notes aren't all 0 cents (measurement for pitch), nevertheless it is a lot better than my first flute. In fact, it is way easier to blow.
Another lesson I learned from Sounds of Music is how engineering makes you apply your book knowledge in the real world. It isn't enough to know how sound and acoustics work. Once I built the flute, various aspects of acoustics connected together. In short, engineering projects force you (in a good way) to ask "How does the knowledge I learned from textbooks explain how every day objects work?" From this experience, I even enjoyed some aspect of engineering. Before, I would avoid it at all costs. Bad memories of middle school would emerge in my mind. Trying it the second time didn't mean that it would be the same as my first experience.
As a result of going to the engineering room every other school day, I got to know my partner a lot better. If you do Science Olympiad not because your friends are doing it, then you will probably have to collaborate with different types of people that you would usually not work with. Initially, I would be a bit concerned if I can't work with my friends. However, working with other classmates makes you expand your groups instead of staying within the boundaries.
Thank you for reading this very long article.

This post isn't necessarily to endorse Science Olympiad as the most inspirational extracurricular activity but to suggest how participating in these types of activities expand your skills and knowledge that can't be found in everyday classes. Most importantly, it changes your personality for the better.
Vivian Hir is a high school student who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her blogs can be found here. Constructive feedback is appreciated.