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Bellmore-JFK's science Olympiads headed to state finals


Anyone who thinks science is a quiet activity reserved for the ivy-covered halls of academe has never attended a science Olympiad like the one held at Levittown’s Division Avenue High School last Saturday. Award-winning students high-fived, shouted and jumped on one another like sports stars winning a championship.

More than 630 students on 42 teams competed from high schools all across southeastern Nassau County’s Division C, according to Levittown Schools Science Director Dr. Leigh Rust, including Bellmore, Merrick, Wantagh, Seaford and East Meadow. The schools were vying for the right to represent the region at a statewide competition in Syracuse in March.

Wantagh’s A team finished third, Bellmore John F. Kennedy’s A team, seventh, and MacArthur High School’s A team, 10th. The top seven schools will go to the state finals. Syosset High School, a perennial science powerhouse, topped the overall standings, followed by Hicksville High.

Kennedy’s three teams took home 21 medals overall, including one first-place award and three for second place. Calhoun and Mepham high schools also fielded three medals each.

The Olympiad is divided into a series of practical events, such as “boomilevers,” gravity vehicles and designer proteins, which require competitors to build devices or models that are evaluated by judges. Other teams take written exams on subjects as diverse as astronomy, geology mapping and music. Some of the 22 events, like protein modeling and detector building, have both practical and written components.

The level of sophistication is astonishing. In protein modeling, for example, students had to read a scientific article and translate schematics from a color-coded card and a computer file into a three-dimensional model of a protein. The exercise was intended to help them understand an approach to gene editing called CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, according to Kennedy science teacher and team coach Alexis Vandergoot.

“This can help us understand viruses,” Vandergoot explained — particularly timely in the face of the coronavirus that has spread from China across the globe. CRISPR can help epidemiologists develop vaccines at a much faster rate than was possible before the evolution of such DNA-editing tools, she said.

Kennedy Principal Gerard Owenburg attended the Olympiad as a spectator to cheer on the home team, and noted his excitement while watching the events. His favorite involved a 3D-printed gravity car.

“Our students had spent a great deal of time after school and between midterm exams preparing for the competition,” Owenburg said in a statement to the Herald Life. “I think the collaborative nature of science Olympiad is what makes it so enjoyable for our students and teachers. Their passion for science and appreciation for each other really shined at the competition.”

Alyssa Seidman contributed to this story.