Science Olympiad: The Long-Awaited Road to State

Part+of+the+2019-20+Tracy+Science+Olympiad+team+waits+for+the+regional+competition%27s+awards+ceremony+to+begin.

Part of the 2019-20 Tracy Science Olympiad team waits for the regional competition’s awards ceremony to begin.

Alina Evans, News Editor

Tracy High School’s Science Olympiad teams have faced a multitude of setbacks in the pursuit of a highly anticipated goal: winning the regional competition and being invited to compete at the state level.

Science Olympiad is an international organization that hosts competitions where student teams participate in scientific events ranging from hands-on build events to study events.

Ali Khani, the second-year president of Tracy High Science Olympiad, shared his thoughts about the challenges that the club has endured thus far.

His first questions regarding the future of the club arose at the beginning of last year’s school year, in September of 2019, when Mr. Ken Wedel, a beloved teacher and colleague as well as the advisor and coach for Tracy Science Olympiad, passed away.

The 2018-19 Tracy Science Olympiad team gathers during a competition with coach Mckay on the far left and coach Wedel on the far right.

“It was a really, really rough start to junior year when Mr. Wedel passed away… I had literally gotten news of his death the day that was supposed to be our first Science Olympiad meeting… It threw me off a lot. There was a period of a few weeks where I was very unsure of where exactly I wanted to go with the team,” said Khani.

Full of doubt, he was then responsible for deciding the future of the club. “Going forward from Mr. Wedel’s death was a bit of a rough transition because obviously we were short on teachers that would be fully versed in the infinite nuances of coaching in Science Olympiad… Working from there was trying to figure out, ‘Okay, we have no new money coming in and we have a team that started off on the foot that our advisor died…’,” Khani said.

What kept him going was, he said, “a refusal to accept that things would stop here and with me. I just decided to keep pushing forward, see what happens, see how I could improve the team…”

Unlike in previous years, the Tracy High Science Olympiad team was unable to attend invitationals at other schools. But as the teams fell into a reworked routine with advisors Hans Neufeld and Erin Mckay, they were able to host a scrimmage of their own on campus.

“Usually we have invitationals to keep us practiced and give us a taste of what we’re up against, and obviously since all invitational sign-ups were already closed because of the timing of everything happening, I figured that we would start our own scrimmage,” said Khani.

“It was a bit of a tricky challenge getting in touch with the right people, coordinating with teachers, parents, proctors, outside volunteers, test writers and the like, and also just figuring out how we were going to do all the events to be scheduled out and if we could get any teachers that would actually want to come in to work a couple of extra hours on a Saturday,” he added, “So there was a good amount that went into fixing up the scrimmage and getting things to work.”

Khani only had two months to plan and execute his idea. “It was really funny. Everything was super last minute, but I think that the scrimmage definitely paid off. It was very unofficial and non-traditional considering that it was just our two teams pitted against each other, but I do feel like it was a really big step forward for us, especially with everything we had faced. And it was a good wake-up call in preparing the team to go to regionals.”

And when regionals finally did come around, Tracy High’s Science Olympiad teams won and were invited to the state competition.

“Regionals itself was a really interesting situation. My birthday was actually the day before and I didn’t celebrate it until a month later because I spent the entire day preparing for regionals. And on the day it was a whole new set of challenges that came up last minute: we had six people missing and two of our builds were actually with those six people, so a lot of odds were stacked against us. Going into it in the morning I wasn’t necessarily sure how things were going to turn out. We had a really big ambition that this year was our year, 2020 we were going to make it to state for the first time in seven years… and I think at one point that was really disheartening,” said Khani.

But the team members decided to work with what they had and salvage the competition. He said, “We just pushed forward and next thing you know, we basically set new records for ourselves. We had six total medalists for three different events and in a couple more events we got top five. That was really big for us.”

“I remember walking with a couple of my fellow teammates over to the office where they were handing out the scoresheets to announce who would be going to state, and I think it was a really surreal feeling getting that paper… and see[ing] ‘Qualified for state,'” recalled Khani. “Six people gone, two builds missing and we had qualified for state for the first time in seven years.”

But this excitement did not last long for Tracy High’s green and gold teams. As COVID-19 cases surged in California in March of this year, the Science Olympiad California state competitions and many others were cancelled due to safety and health concerns.

“We announced it the Wednesday after [we won], and we had a whole lengthy pizza party and gave out ribbons. It was great. Little did we know that just literal minutes after that meeting ended, we would get word that state was cancelled,” said Khani.

The 2019-20 Tracy Science Olympiad team stands together, with coach Neufeld on the bottom left.

“It was a pretty rough moment where I put everything into question. All of this effort, all of this energy, all of this output, only for our first year to qualify for state to get cancelled on us… But moving forward it was, as I said before, a refusal to quit… I figured let’s keep moving forward and let’s get ready for next year,” he added.

Now, with a new school year and a new season, Hans Neufeld, a physics teacher on campus and Science Olympiad’s sole advisor, also has new concerns about the way that the pandemic has affected his duties.

“It is easier to attend invitationals to gain practice testing because there are no costs associated with travel, the fees required by the people putting on the invitationals are lower and we have access to many invitationals through the internet. Unfortunately, attending invitationals means more paperwork and more organization. [This] is made more difficult when we have to wait for those putting on the competitions to work out what changes they will make to how events will be tested, which events will be tested, how and when to register, and how and when to make payments,” said Neufeld.

“[And] although I know that the Science Olympiad members are communicating online to prepare, I have not seen whether their personal preparations are different from what they have been in the past,” he added.

But the pandemic has also made certain aspects of advising the club easier.

“Although there is more work involved in preparing for all of the online invitationals, I will not have to prepare tests and solicit help to prepare for a competition on our campus as I did last year,” Neufeld said. “Also, I just found out last week that I will not have to write any tests for the regional competition because one group will be handling the tests for all of the different Northern California regional competitions.”

But Neufeld’s hope for the club has always been to facilitate scientific learning in curious students. He said, “My goal is to work alongside the officers to provide members opportunities to grow academically while encouraging them to compete with integrity, respect and good sportsmanship.”

Both Khani and Neufeld are optimistic for the club this season and plan on being invited back to compete at the state competition.

Khani said, “We won regionals last year and we’ll do it again. We’ve got that same energy and that same output, despite the coronavirus and everything that has been thrown at us. Tracy High Science Olympiad is simply a team you don’t mess with… We don’t know when to quit.”