A person stands before a crowd seated in bleachers. Tables covered with cloths contain trophies and other items.

GVSU celebrates 40th anniversary of Regional Science Olympiad competition

Students sit and stand in front of Loutit Hall of Science in a photo from 1991.
In this photo from 1991, students gather outside Loutit Hall of Science.
Image credit - Courtesy

The Region 12 Michigan Science Olympiad is returning to Grand Valley for its 40th year, building on the vision of university leaders who in the 1980s saw an opportunity to strengthen science education while showing how invigorating science can be.

The competition on March 23 on the Allendale Campus will feature the hallmarks of Science Olympiad : events that allow middle school and high school students from Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties to showcase their STEM capabilities and demonstrate the teamwork and problem-solving skills necessary for success.

Students from 22 high school teams and 18 middle school teams will participate in the 23 events at each level (the same number of events as the number of chromosomes). New events Robot Tour Track, Optics and Air Trajectory will join classic flying and vehicle events and lab events such as Crime Busters, said Chelsea Ridge, tournament co-director.

Nine high school teams and seven middle school teams will quality for the state tournament. The competition will run from 8:30 a.m. to 2:50 p.m., with the awards ceremony beginning at 4:30 p.m. in the Kelly Family Sports Center.

"When I consider the number of lives that our regional tournament has touched in the 40 years of competition, I am overwhelmed and honored by the magnitude," said Ridge, who is also co-director of the GVSU Regional Math and Science Center, which hosts the competition. "The stories of how Science Olympiad has impacted the lives of so many people inspire us to continue the work and speak to GVSU’s commitment to the community."

For Doug Kindschi, the regional Science Olympiad competition is an enduring point of pride from when he helped lead its inception at Grand Valley as the dean of Science and Mathematics.

Its beginnings at Grand Valley came during a time of heightened outreach by GVSU faculty members to K-12 educators to collaborate on ways to strengthen education at all levels, Kindschi said. He said the late Howard Stein, professor emeritus of biology, had heard of Science Olympiad and suggested establishing a tournament at GVSU.

Video for national Science Olympiad tournament held at GVSU in 1998.

GVSU's Science Olympiad profile quickly grew, leading to an opportunity to host the national tournament in 1998, Kindschi said. Mary Ann Sheline and Sandi Bacon served as longtime co-directors and were integral to the GVSU tournament’s early success. All past directors will be honored on March 23, with several in attendance.

By now, two generations of Science Olympian high school and middle school students have been on campus, often for their first time in a university setting, giving them a taste of what they could experience as GVSU students – and science students, Kindschi said.

"Science Olympiad wasn't originally a recruiting device but it turned out to be a fabulous recruiting device," Kindschi said. He added that notion extended to faculty members; he recalled hiring a scholar who chose GVSU, in part, because of their experience with Science Olympiad as a high school student.

"People saw that this was a place that was really focused on science," Kindschi said.

Science Olympiad moments through the years

Two people, one wearing goggles, inspect an apparatus.
Two people wearing shirts that say "Plymouth Christian" sit at a table. One person is raising a hand.
Two people kneeling at a table work on a science project. Two people in the background converse, with one holding a small constructed piece.
Two people standing on a gymnasium floor hold their hands up while a parachuted item lifts up.
A group of people kneel, stand and sit as they pose for a photo.
As a student, Kari Fuller was part of this Science Olympiad team.
Image credit - Courtesy of Kari Fuller

That inspiration also extended to Kari Fuller, '02, who competed as a Coopersville student in the early days of the tournament, then went on to teach science at Allendale Middle School and also serve as a Science Olympiad coach. Fuller credited the competition for helping to ignite her interest in learning about and teaching science, noting her middle school team comprised of mostly girls was notable in a time before there was a push to encourage girls to pursue STEM fields.

"I just love figuring out the mystery of life, figuring out what's going on," Fuller said. "I wanted to be a coach because of that enthusiasm, so I could help walk other people through figuring out those questions. I appreciate Grand Valley supporting our students to do that. A lot of people think science is just about putting your head in a book, but it's hands on."

The number and variety of event options offer opportunities for students to display their strengths as well as hone new capabilities, Fuller said. Using perseverance to build new skills and the accompanying confidence is important for the students.

The spirit around the competition is also an essential part of Science Olympiad, said Anna Pell, an information systems major who competed in Science Olympiad and is currently coaching a middle school team from Hudsonville Public Schools.

Like Fuller, Pell was also inspired by Science Olympiad to study the sciences. She said what has been just as inspiring is the camaraderie and welcoming atmosphere, where people from different backgrounds find a sense of belonging as everyone focuses on working together for a common purpose as a team.

"It's really important to me as an adult that these middle schoolers I'm now coaching get the same level of support and the feeling like home that I did when I was a kid," Pell said. 

Two people wearing goggles peer at a piece of paper held by one person. That person also is holding a pencil.
Two participants consult during the 2012 competition.
Image credit - Daniel Aistrop


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