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'Unprepared' Olympiad team still reaches state

Red Wing High School Science Olympiad team -- including Emily Dech, Megan Graves, Julia Hofer, Emma Streff, Mike Cordes and Aaron Wildenborg -- competed at the state competition in St. Paul March 9. Other team members not pictured are: Lexi Winfrey, Cheyanne Thurston, Ashley Elford, Brendan Kelly, Tony Poss and Bennett Carson1 / 2
Mike Cordes (left) and Aaron Wildenborg demonstrate their gravity vehicle Tuesday. At the state Science Olympiad competition, Cordes and Wildenborg had to get the vehicle -- which is equipped with a small break -- to stop within a certain distance.2 / 2

Red Wing High School's Science Olympiad team certainly wasn't the most stylish when they competed at the Minnesota Science Olympiad Saturday at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

While many of the 29 other teams came equipped with custom-made white lab coats, Red Wing didn't look quite so professional.

"We were wearing translucent lab coats," team member Emma Streff said laughing, adding that their coats were well-worn and certainly not specially made.

Team members also found themselves less prepared than their competition, which pits Minnesota students against each other in a variety of science-related competitions. Having just started practicing for the event in December, Red Wing had considerably less preparation time than the other teams, some of which began preparing last June.

"Intimidated," team member Aaron Wildenborg said of how he felt when he first saw the other teams.

"Unprepared," added his teammate Julia Hofer.

Luckily, none of that really mattered.

"We were just going to have fun," Hofer said.

A late start

Red Wing High School hasn't competed in the Science Olympiad in more than five years, science teacher and Olympiad adviser Jim Leise said. But earlier this school year, a group of students requested that Red Wing revive the program.

"We all really like science," Hofer said of why they signed up. "It sounded like a fun thing."

The team competed in the regional competition in Rochester in early February. The eight teams with the highest scores were given the opportunity to compete in St. Paul.

Though Red Wing teammates never dreamed they'd qualify, they ended up coming in eighth.

"We somehow made it to state," Streff said.

Over the next month, the Red Wing team did practice for the larger competition. But not a lot.

"It kind of snuck up on us," team member Emily Dech said.

Thirty teams advanced to the state competition, which comprises 15 individual events. Leise helped assign students to each of those events.

"A lot of it is pairing up people with what their skills are and where their interests are," he said.

That means that the students could really utilize knowledge that they already had, rather than starting from scratch, he said.

That helped the team earn top 15 finishes in some individual competitions, Leise said. Red Wing earned 11th place in the chemistry lab competition, 10th in Fermi questions and ninth in "write it, do it."

"If you can get in the top half, you're doing pretty well," Leise said.

The team scored 27th overall. But neither Leise nor his students are disappointed with the outcome.

"I'm really proud of the attitude they took," Leise said. "They just had fun with it."

"It was a good experience overall," Hofer said.

The team is looking at this year as a learning experience and is expecting to go back next year much more prepared. That, the team said, will include not only an updated wardrobe, but also more practice and a good understanding of what they can expect from the other teams.

"It was fun to see how our competition worked," team member Ashley Elford said.

"We just want to get our places up," Hofer said.

Leise said he's learned from this year's trip to state as well. He said he'll begin to recruit students earlier next year and have them begin practicing much sooner than he did this year.

Still, he said he's proud of his students and what they learned in St. Paul.

"It's good for them to realize that there's a bigger world," he said of exposing his students to other school's science programs and high-achieving students. "But also that it's OK to enjoy doing this stuff."

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.