Billings Central High students placed first last week at the Montana Science Olympiad in the high school division. It was their second year competing in the annual statewide science tournament.
Their efforts earned them two gold medals, four silvers, two bronzes and the opportunity to represent Montana at the national competition in May.
“Many schools take this competition very seriously and have been competing for decades, so to win it in only our second year is particularly impressive to me,” said Greg Williams, Central’s Olympiad coach.
Last year, Williams said, the team took seventh place with very little invested time and effort.
“This year, we came in dedicated and put in a lot of time and effort,” he said. “We came out firing, and sure enough, we won.”
Billings Central bested Fergus High School, which finished second. Helena High School finished third.
Science Olympiad is an annual competition where students compete in science and engineering events. Competitors and their projects are tested and judged on their knowledge from astronomy to forensics and hands-on events like building elastic glider launches and robots.
The 28th annual state competition hosted by Montana State University’s Math-Science Resource Center drew 1,300 high school and middle school students.
Tim Lyle and Elliot Hagan, both Central High juniors, were one team among 40 high school teams that participated in the Magnetic Leviation competition. Competitors constructed magnetically levitated vehicles with battery-powered motors that generate two propellers to move the robot vehicle down a magnetic track.
The project was judged on how fast the vehicle traveled and how much the vehicle weighed. Other components of their score were a written test about magnetism and how closely they predicted the time it would take for the vehicle to travel the track.
The teams were told the track would be in the range of 50 to 95 centimeters long when they built their model vehicles, so their prediction was based on trial runs while they built and tested their project.
“There was a lot of trial and error involved,” Hagan said. “And we’ll go through that again as we work to perfect the weight and balance for nationals.”
The team said the model represents a transportation system that runs on a strong magnetic system, a public railway system Japan has used for decades.
“It’s a very efficient way of transportation that could someday become the way of transportation in the United States,” Lyle said. “But it’s also pretty expensive.”
The pair said their coach, Williams, has been one of their favorite teachers since first period of their freshman year. It was Lyle and Hagan’s first high school class, and it was Williams’ first time teaching.
Williams, a geometry and advanced placement stats teacher at Central, participated in Science Olympiad while he was in junior high and helped establish a team while in high school. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2006 with an aerospace engineering degree.
As the students and their coach prepare projects for the national Science Olympiad at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, this spring, Hagen said they will focus on perfecting the weight and balance of the vehicle by experimenting with different propellers and batteries.
Preparation also means fundraising.
Williams said they aren’t sure what their fundraising game plan is yet, but it will cost upward of $20,000 to get Central’s teams to the national competition.
They will compete against nearly 6,400 teams from all 50 states for awards, trophies, trips, cash scholarships and tuition stipends. In 2010, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign awarded four-year full-ride scholarships for all high school gold medal winners, valued at more than $100,000 each.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for our students,” said Williams. “And you couldn’t ask for a better group of kids. Beyond their hard work and preparation, they exhibit respect, professionalism and sportsmanship.”