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Science Olympians use precision and wits in battle for top honors

Charles Paglione, a freshman at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, twirled the wheels of a four-wheeled cart, his lips moving silently as he counted its revolutions.

Nearby, sophomore Alex Kaczmarek hunched over the base of a ramp, taking measurements with a drafting triangle.

After making precise calculations, Kaczmarek counted down from three, removed a pencil holding the cart in place, and watched hopefully as it shot down the ramp -- stopping just 4 centimeters from a piece of blue-tape target 6.7 meters away and within .15 seconds of the team's estimated time.

"I think we did pretty good," Paglione said.

More than 900 high school students from all over the state converged on the Canisius College campus Saturday to compete in the New York State Science Olympiad, where the state's regional winners battled it out in dozens of events for a spot in the national competition.

The Olympiad is usually held at West Point Military Academy, but Canisius offered to host the competition for free while the military school undergoes construction.

"This is where they get to get out of the classroom and do things," said St. Joe's coach and biology teacher Jim Roland. "It's where they discover their gifts and develop them."

Four Western New York teams made the cut at regionals to qualify for the state competition: the Charter School for Applied Technologies landed fourth place, Williamsville East High School finished third, St. Joe's ranked second and Clarence High School won the top honors in the region.

The Charter School for Applied Technologies was the only charter school to make it to Saturday's competition. They placed last on their first try at regionals in 2008, but have moved up steadily.

"These kids are dedicated beyond belief," said earth science teacher and coach Torrey Black, who founded the team in 2007. "These kids are in my room four hours a day, during lunches, study halls, mornings, after school. We fought our way up from the bottom of the barrel."

It's a satisfying turn for Fred Saia, the charter school's founder and chairman of the board.

"It validates everything the board wanted. It's the reason we started the school," Saia said. "This is where it starts. This is where the interest comes from, how you keep them engaged."

In the gravity vehicle event, students build a car and ramp, and aim to get it as close as possible to a specified target distance as quickly as possible. They must also predict how long it will take to get there. In another event, students design and build a robotic arm and use it to get as many batteries, nails, pencils and pieces of pipe into a milk jug as they can in three minutes. In another, students build the lightest tower they can that can bear the most weight without breaking.

In the magnetic levitation event, students build a self-propelled, floating vehicle that travels down a track as quickly as possible.

Basia Tou and Katie Hardy, two sophomore competitors from Clarence High School, have been preparing for the Olympiad since the school year began.

"You really get to apply the principals that you learn in classes and see them work at Olympiad," Hardy said.

Students also get to meet like-minded teens from around the state. "The camaraderie is something that stays with them forever," said Kathy Toye, a regional coordinator who helped bring the competition to Canisius.