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Science Olympiad, where ‘Big Bang Theory’ is put to test

Agnes Santiano had a scare in the bungee drop, when her plastic bottle dropped from 12 feet in the air into a pile of flour like a thud.

The Sacred Heart Academy senior blurted out an embarrassed “Sorry” and put her hands over her eyes, before being told the bottle malfunctioned and the turn didn’t count.

After Agnes’ next throw, at 83 centimeters from the ground, came up short, she recalibrated the amount of elastic needed – she had prepared by modeling different heights and weights – and her second landed just 15 centimeters from the ground.

“It was nerve-wracking,” Agnes said afterward.

The experience also was rewarding.

“Learning in school is really important, but the opportunity to apply what I’ve learned to something in real life is really valuable. It helps you to understand the concepts behind what you’re learning in school,” Agnes said.

The New York State Science Olympiad was a chance for young scientists to let their geek flag fly Saturday.

In Canisius College’s Science Hall, 600 area high school students competed in 25 events, from suspending handmade model planes in the air and presenting colorful, spaghetti-like three-dimensional protein models to entering wooden bridges in a strength competition and creating mousetrap-like contraptions that rang a bell.

Winners go on to the state competition in March.

Attendance at the Lake Erie/Niagara sectional was the highest ever in the competition’s 31 years, and that, together with the high quality of work at the science and design event, served as a counterpoint to fears U.S. students are slipping internationally in the sciences.

“When you have events like this, it really gets you excited, as opposed to just sitting in a classroom and having to memorize something,” said Phillip Sheridan, a Canisius College chemistry professor who helped coordinate the event. “That’s what scientists do in their careers. I think the movement to incorporate more hands-on activities really helped with science education.”

Sheridan said it was important that events like the Science Olympiad shine a positive light on science students, given all the attention lavished on athletics.

Matt Wagner and Mark Doud, seniors at Springville-Griffith Institute, were one of several teams that devised a complicated and unusual chain reaction of energy transfers to ring a bell. They used a sequence of switches, motors, pulleys – and a half-dozen golf balls.

“Most of it was done in the last few weeks because I’m kind of a procrastinator,” Matt laughed.

He has competed in the Science Olympiad every year in high school and hopes to begin studying electronic engineering in the fall at Rochester Institute of Technology.

In the wooden bridge competition, students were asked to use the least amount of wood while retaining the greatest strength. In the competition, stress was added to determine the ratio between the bridge’s weight and how much it could hold.

Stephanie Richter of Hutchinson-Central Technical High School watched, disappointed, as her bridge succumbed early on.

“I tried to make it as light as possible, but I don’t think I made it as strong as it could have been because of it. A lot of the bridges look a lot heavier than mine did,” said Stephanie, who will be attending the University at Buffalo as a computer engineering student.

Still, she said she enjoyed the science competition.

“I like how science is math,” she said, “but in a different way, because you actually do things with it instead of imaginary scenarios.”

In a large room, students competed to fly model planes made of balsa wood and with uniform size requirements.

“They’re supposed to circle around, but not every plane does that. Some fall straight to the ground,” a volunteer said.

That’s what happened with the plane created by Alex Clapsadl and Ian McCombs of Canisius High School.

“Everything went wrong,” said a disappointed Alex, after both attempts crashed. “The motor hook broke, the tail broke and the rubber bands” – which worked as the plane’s motor, and powered the propeller – “came untied. We’ve flown it for over two minutes in the practices, but now with the fixes and everything, it’s not working.”

It’s hard to say if the Science Olympiad’s growing popularity has anything to do with the popular science sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” but Agnes, the Sacred Heart Academy senior, said the show has made it cooler to like science.

“I think the ‘Big Bang Theory’ has definitely sparked an interest in people who are younger, and I think that’s valuable because when people look at TV, they think, ‘Oh, I want to be a singer or someone in a movie,’ which is good,” she said. “But there’s a whole other world of opportunity that comes with the sciences. In engineering alone, there are so many possibilities, like architecture or medicine,” Agnes said.

“I identify with being nerdy or geeky, but I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with being nerdy or geeky. It’s just having a passion and really pursuing it.”