The halls of Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle School in South Baltimore ring with the happy end-of-day shouts and the clatter of lockers being slammed shut as Johns Hopkins University undergraduates Tyler Lee, Margaret Li, and Daniel Wang navigate the busy hall to Darlene Mullen’s classroom on a recent afternoon.
The trio has been making this journey once a week since the semester began, but today, their steps are a little faster and more deliberate. After all, the big day is only two weeks away.
In that classroom waits a team of middle schoolers preparing to compete in the Maryland Science Olympiad and Lee, Li, and Wang are their mentors. There is much work to do before the event, set for Saturday, April 22, on the Homewood campus.
Science Olympiad is the nation’s largest team STEM competition for middle and high schoolers, involving roughly 7,000 teams across all 50 states. Started in 1984, the competition comprises 23 events that cover nearly every area of science—from earth science to cell biology to engineering. Each team member typically competes in three or four events based on their skills or interests. The competition is held on a regional, state, and national level, with qualifying competitions at each to advance.
The team at Cherry Hill was one of 10 Baltimore City teams (nine of which, including Barclay Elementary Middle School, were mentored by JHU students) that qualified at regionals for the upcoming state competition being held at JHU, where they will square off against the other top 23 middle school teams from the state.
The flashcards and figures and the desks covered in building materials and diagrams are a familiar scene to Lee and Li, both of whom were Science Olympiad competitors in middle and high school. Li, a neuroscience major in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, logged her time as a competitor in Massachusetts, and Lee, a materials science and engineering major in the Whiting School of Engineering, competed in Hawaii, making it as far as nationals when they were held at Colorado State and Cornell University. A kid from the island of Oahu, he remembers the thrill of meeting many people and the sense of camaraderie he felt for his teammates. He also mentored his former middle school team as a high school student, and this year is not only a mentor but also a volunteer with both Charm City Science League, a group of Hopkins undergraduates who volunteer with and mentor Baltimore City students in STEM, and the Olympiad itself.
Lee will help run the upcoming state tournament which has been hosted annually for more than 10 years on Hopkins’ Homewood campus through a partnership between the Whiting School of Engineering’s Center for Educational Outreach and Maryland Science Olympiad.
On this spring afternoon, Lee, Wang, and Cherry Hill students Josiah and Cordell are hunched over a table covered in thin strips of wood, cutting them to the specifications of the bridge. At the state competition, this bridge will be laden with weight until it collapses, a test of load-bearing design. Another event will recognize the students who can design and build a glider that remains airborne the longest.
“This is my first year in [the Olympiad],” says Cordell, a sixth grader. He is excited but realistic about the strength of the competition he and his team will face. “These other schools are real strong and real smart, but if we come practiced and focused, I think we’re going to do it. We’re not done yet.”
Cordell is participating in the solar system event at the state competition. He will be tested on his knowledge of the cosmos. While some of his classmates kicked back with video games or slept in during spring break, he studied spacecraft and NASA missions.
“I like to study the universe around us. Right now, things aren’t looking too good with how we treat the Earth, so we might need to move to space. Earth is special but if we keep polluting, we’re going to need another planet,” Cordell says.
Josiah nods from across the table as he and Lee dab glue onto the ends of their dowels.
“The big push right now is getting ready for our build events and then just gradually covering the last of the material,” says Lee. He is nervous about all the work the team needs to do between now and the competition, but it is a good kind of nervous—a fun nervousness. The students have come so far already. In the fall, they had never heard of astronomy. Now, they were going to demonstrate their knowledge of it at a statewide competition.
Across the room, Mullen and her co-coach, Cherry Hill teacher Sabrina Elliott, swap stories of their grandchildren as they time the journey of a marble through the complex, winding rollercoaster the students built, trying to get as close as possible to the official target time, while Jazmine and a teammate make small alterations. The girls are both also interested in chemistry and will be competing at the Olympiad in “Crime Busters,” an event that challenges them to perform forensic tests to solve a crime given a scenario, a collection of evidence, and possible suspects.
Team members have diverse interests, from bridge and glider building and the solar system to crime solving, cryptography, and codebreaking to experimental design. Jazmine, a seventh grader, is the team’s anatomy and physiology buff. This afternoon, she is preparing to be tested on her understanding of the human respiratory, digestive, and immune systems by reviewing a series of digital flashcards emblazoned with diagrams of internal organs.
Lee, meanwhile, is trying to manage expectations—his and the students’—but also has confidence in these young people, who show up every week and put in the work.
“I don’t like to place any bets, but hopefully their hard work will pay off,” he says.