Knowledge is power

January 25, 2023

Knowledge is power

Tiger Pride is a presentation of Shelby Public Schools in partnership with Oceana County Press.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor

SHELBY — The Shelby High School Science Olympiad program has been sparking excitement about science and teaching team work and problem solving skills for over 30 years. 

The opportunity broadens horizons for students, especially those who are not interested in playing sports. “It’s a place for those kids who want to do more. They may not be the basketball player or the football player, but this is where they excel,” said Coach Pete Peterson.

“I really like getting to come in here after school and just work on science stuff. We’re both geeks,” said Kiera Ransom with a smile. She and her best friend Mary Bisard are working on a balsa wood bridge project. The 12th graders are team captains with senior Briseida Brito.

Science Olympiad has a regional tournament in March and then a state competition in May. Shelby’s region spans about a dozen counties including 15-20 schools. “If you’re first or second in your region, then you get invited to the state meet at Michigan State, and that is the top 50 schools,” said Peterson. “It is high-level competition. It’s like the nerd super bowl.”

The Shelby squads have brought home 13 trophies over the decades, capturing a program high of 21st at state. 

The Tigers are in the same region as Science Olympiad powerhouse Grand Haven, which has competed nationally. The Grand Haven team has an extensive budget, giving the Buccaneers a built-in advantage over smaller schools like Shelby, said Peterson. The top two schools in each state compete at nationals. 

“Science Olympiad is approximately 26 events — they change every year and are actually on cycles. Some events are pretty straight forward — they are knowledge events, like cell biology. You go in and take a college-level test.

“Some of the events are events where you build something beforehand like a balsa wood bridge or a tower or a car that runs on gravity power.”

Peterson teaches physics, chemistry, AP (Advanced Placement) biology, forensics and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Thirty of his 31 teaching years have been at Shelby with 29 coaching Science Olympiad. He coaches girls varsity soccer and was the boys varsity soccer coach for 23 years. He also coached JV volleyball earlier in his career.

Several students play sports and compete in Science Olympiad, too.

Bruce Brimmer was the original Science Olympiad coach, handing the reins to Peterson. Paul Schamber serves as assistant. 

Rules require that teams are comprised of 15 students grades 9-12. Teams are allowed only seven seniors, so they can’t be “stacked” with the upperclassmen, the coach said.

Select students participate. High interest level in the program has required try outs for a spot on the team some years. When Peterson’s son Evan was in school, so many students wanted to participate that an alternate team formed.

Many Tiger alumni who were Science Olympians now work in science-based fields including computer programming, cyber security and veterinary medicine. The team’s flag design (pictured) was created by former Shelby Science Olympian Megan Polacek, who is creative director and team manager at Pixel Grafix Studio in Hart and Ludington.

Shelby students meet after school and on Saturdays and work on projects at home. 

Briseida and sophomore Audrey Horton are designing “The Scrambler,” which is a car that launches through a pipe. “It’s going to be carrying an egg, and if the egg cracks, we get points deducted. I like it — it’s fun. It challenges you.” Both girls said they have plans to pursue science-related careers.

“Our goal is to make it the lightest bridge but hold the most weight,” said Kiera of the bridge building project. “Triangles are the strongest geometric shape, so that’s why we have all the different triangles.

“They have a payload system with a bucket that hangs from it, with another bucket that slowly pours sand into it. And it just keeps going until the bridge breaks.”

Mary said she enjoys the team camaraderie. 

“I like building things,” said Josephine Kirker. “It’s a really a great community to be a part of,” her sister Eleanor added.

“I plan to go into computer science programming,” said senior Tanner Soelberg who has been a Science Olympian for two years.

Seniors Abel Sill and Emma Soelberg tackled Science Olympiad for the first time this year. The pair are working on an arduino board project. “Basically, it does what a computer does, but it’s not a computer,” explained Abel. “You charge up a small robot with this or make a toy car go.” They are creating a weight sensor. “When something moves onto the sensor, it has to show us on the computer that it’s there; how much it is; and when it leaves.” 

“I just wanted to try Science Olympiad, because I wanted to try something new,” said Emma. “I’ve never done anything like it.” She plans to pursue a career in art or design. “It’s kind of the same in a way, just using your creativity and working through your problems and figuring out different ways to do things, which is fun.”

“I have a lot of experience in building with Legos and things,” said freshman Garrett Birkhofer. “I have studied science for a very long time.” One of his events is called “It’s About Time,” which involves building a clock. “The clock I’m building is made out of Legos,” said Garrett who plans to pursue a science or engineering career. 

“I’d like to encourage people to join this, because I think that it’s a really good opportunity for people who like science.” 

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