Wired In: Erik Johnson


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Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a different high-tech difference maker. This week, meet ERIK JOHNSON, an associate professor of astronomy at Parkland College. He's also a leader in Parkland's regional Science Olympiad tournament for middle and high school students. He and Amy Nicely were regional tournament directors at least month's event.

Tell us about the Olympiad.

Each year, students from middle schools and high schools compete in several events relating to science, technology, and engineering fields. They build devices and structures, demonstrate scientific reasoning, and perform laboratory tasks based on the sciences taught in schools.

Who will we be writing about next? The state Science Olympiad tournament is at the University of Illinois on April 13.

Local teams are St. Matthew Catholic School, Franklin STEAM Academy, University Laboratory High School, Mahomet-Seymour High School, Centennial High School and Argenta-Oreana High School.Students prepare during the school year and are tested on biology, earth science, chemistry, physics and technology concepts. Are there some schools that are consistently near the top?

A few schools in the area do well each year, but there are no "dynasties."

What do students gain from this experience?

I feel they see how they can apply their knowledge in a setting closer to what they may do in that profession. This application can also help improve their academic performance. Some students have been inspired to study certain fields of science because of their experiences competing in those events.

How broad is the area your Olympians come from?

At Parkland's regional, we host schools throughout East Central Illinois. Schools from Watseka, Neoga and Mt. Pulaski drive to Champaign early in the morning each year. Parkland hosts one of 10 regional tournaments all around the state.

What's one of the toughest questions you've heard?

I think we've had some challenging events, where students had to build a mechanical arm and program it to complete a number of tasks. I used to run astronomy events for the regional and state competition, and I'm sure I gave a few stumpers. I often had multi-part questions, where a student would analyze the varying brightness of a star and use that information to determine several properties, such as size, distance, and temperature.

How did you get involved? Did you compete as a youngster?

Although my high school is involved with Science Olympiad now, they weren't doing it when I attended. I began running astronomy events in my first year working at Parkland in 2012.

The Science Olympiad was founded in 1984. I imagine you and Amy weren't on the faculty yet. Has it changed over the years you've been involved with it?

My level of involvement has shifted quite a bit, so it's hard for me to see the difference at the state level since I got more involved only a few years ago. At the regional level, the biggest changes I've seen are in the space we use for the tournament. Thanks to all the construction and renovation at Parkland during this decade, the college looks quite different than it did in my first year.

How do you and Amy split up the duties?

Amy coordinates registration and event planning with the school's coaches. We work together to assign each event to a room, and I reserve all the facilities with the college. She and I also recruit people to supervise each event. In short, I think of her as the primary director, making sure the components of the state Science Olympiad organization are set. I think of myself as the site liaison, making sure the college is ready to host.

Can both middle schools and high schools compete?

There are 23 events for both the B (middle school) and C (high school) divisions. The letters imply that Science Olympiad is also set up for elementary schools, and there are a few schools who compete, including one in our part of the state.The tournament covers 23 different events, all the STEM fields. Do you find that some students are interested in all the different areas?

Unfortunately, there isn't enough time for students to compete in every event. Based on the schedules we set up, I would be surprised if a student did more than four events in a single tournament. I haven't operated as a coach and I don't think we track to see if any student is trying to do a marathon on the tournament. I bet that practice would be discouraged. My feeling is that a student could rotate between some events throughout their years in school so they get a good sampling. Another way they could try additional events would be to attend one of the invitational tournaments that take place between November and February.

On the national level, there are nearly 8,000 teams in all 50 states. How many teams from the state competition usually move on to the national?

Each state sends the top two schools to the national tournament in each division.

Did you ever make any mistakes in your teaching career that you learned from?

If we didn't make mistakes, how would we ever learn? Every good scientist would tell you that when you test your hypothesis, you are bound to encounter a surprising result. Refinement happens through modification.

TECH TIDBITS ... from Erik Johnson

Do you have interests in social media? Are your startups on any of them? Parkland Science Olympiad has a Facebook page (@PC.ScienceOlympiad), where we share photos of the tournament as well as information for coaches and visitors. It might be good for us to set up those photos on Instagram too, but I don't have a personal account with that network.

Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? When I get a chance to read, it's a book or comic books. I was reading "Eight Men Out," and I plan to finish that after the end of the semester.

Do you have any wearable electronics? I let my iPhone track my steps, but not with a watch.

Do you have an entrepreneurial hero? Regarding astronomy, I really enjoy how Phil Plait communicates news in the field. I was glad to meet him when the Champaign Public Library invited him to speak before the solar eclipse in 2017.


Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is pwood@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).