Small school shows off big brains

Maybe the girls from Home Hi did make a minor spectacle of themselves at the regional Science Olympiad competition.

"We were screaming," said Sissela Rosenstock-Murav, a seventh-grader at the middle school in Urbana. "We were trying to keep our cool. But we really couldn't."

You have to cut them some slack, however. Home Hi only has a few dozen students – all girls – and it was the first time the tiny Urbana school had even fielded a Science Olympiad team.

The team's second-place finish at the regionals has Home Hi in the state finals at the University of Illinois this weekend, an outcome surprising enough that school Director Rhonda Cromwell said she had this reaction when one of the parents working with the team called to tell her:

"You've got to be joking."

No joke, Home Hi is among the four area schools in the state finals of the Illinois Science Olympiad, along with Champaign Central, St. Matthew School in Champaign and Urbana Middle School. There are separate classes in the competition for middle and high schools.

About 1,100 students from schools around the state are expected to participate, according to Howard Guenther, associate vice chancellor for research and the UI's Science Olympiad liaison.

The finals run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at various locations on campus, with a science and engineering information fair from 3 to 5 p.m. at Huff Gym, 1206 S. Fourth St., C, and an awards ceremony from 5 to 7 p.m. UI Vice Chancellor for Research Charles Zukoski will be the featured speaker. For more information see www.research.uiuc.edu/iso/index.asp.

The students compete in 23 events covering science concepts and engineering skills, from constructing miniature bridges, with the idea of maximizing the weight they can hold, to building rockets powered by bicycle pump-pressurized water, with the goal of making them fly highest and stay up longest.

At a Home Hi Science Olympiad team practice session last week, Beth Weisbach, a sixth-grader from Urbana, was making an artificial aquifer, that is to say a model of an underground water deposit.

"The way you make your clay is very important," she said when asked how one goes about making a good aquifer.

If you had asked her about aquifers before her involvement in the science team, you wouldn't have learned much, Weisbach admitted. "I would have said: What are you talking about?"

Cromwell said Home Hi makes a point of encouraging its girls to take an interest in math and science. So it seemed like a good idea when parent Bob Coverdill, a UI research engineer, approached her about forming a Science Olympiad team.

"We thought this would be our pilot year," Cromwell said. "The girls have really taken to it."

Coverdill and other parents have helped Home Hi science teacher Joan Campagnolo with coaching duties and the program has received a big assist from some UI students, particularly women, majoring in technical fields.

Kim Vlcek, a freshman in bioengineering from Darien, said she heard about Home Hi's need for volunteer coaches through the UI Women in Engineering program.

Vlcek was a science Olympian herself and she missed it.

"It was probably the most fun I had in high school," she said. "It's a lot of exercise for your brain."

Working with the Home Hi team has proven to be the next best thing.

"The girls are a lot of fun," Vlcek said.

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