Spanning a test platform, a small wooden bridge held up an increasingly heavy plastic bucket as it filled with sand. After a suspenseful minute—CRACK!—the bridge collapsed in a dramatic, splintery explosion.
"11.775 kilograms!" announced a judge. High school juniors Preena Maruthavelu and Antonette Chavez gave each other a high five; their bridge, weighing just over 20 grams, held nearly 600 times its own weight.
The event was part of the Southern California Science Olympiad State Tournament, a team-based science and engineering competition for middle and high school students hosted on Saturday, April 8, by Caltech and Polytechnic School.
Around 2,000 students, teachers, and volunteers flocked to campus for the event, where 30 teams competed in the middle school division and another 30 in the high school division. All teams had already won their regional tournaments and were vying for the top spot in their divisions in hope of advancing to the Science Olympiad National Tournament.
The state tournament consisted of 23 events for each division. Events included engineering challenges such as the bridge event, chemistry labs, knowledge-based exams in biology, astronomy, and earth sciences, as well as hands-on experiments.
Beckman Mall served as the teams' home base and was packed with tents and parent-monitored snack tables as students traversed campus for their events in various buildings. Some competitors wore white lab coats and goggles while others carried projects in tow such as catapults, rubber-band-powered airplanes, and even a PVC pipe thongophone, presumably for the build-your-own-instrument "Sounds of Music" event.
Volunteers Anthony Quan, regional co-director for the Los Angeles County Science Olympiad, and Julie Newman (BS '14) provided support and answered participants' questions at a table in front of Beckman Auditorium.
"Caltech has a very long history with Science Olympiad, even before we began hosting competitions here," said Newman, who competed in the tournament as a student and has volunteered with Science Olympiad for 13 years. "Caltech student and alumni volunteers pretty much run the whole state level Science Olympiad event."
Caltech has hosted the Southern California State Tournament since 2016, including a virtual tournament in 2021. Last year, Caltech hosted the national tournament virtually. Caltech's Science Olympiad club is largely responsible for organizing the volunteer effort. This year, club co-presidents Jolly Patro and Albert Kyi coordinated with all six academic divisions, Caltech administrators, and the Undergraduate Admissions Office, which provided tours and information sessions for tournament attendees.
"Science Olympiad is all about sharing STEM, and that's what Caltech's mission is too," said Patro, a fourth-year undergraduate, at the event. "So many members of our planning team really enjoyed competing in Science Olympiad when we were younger, including myself. Now we get this full-circle moment; this is what got so many of us into science, and now we get to give back and do the same thing for the next generation."
Emily Miaou (BS '18), a fifth-year graduate student at Caltech and ninth-year Science Olympiad volunteer, echoed the sentiment at the event: "Everyone who comes back to help has a sense of commitment to the organization. The competition exposes students to a breadth of different scientific disciplines, some that aren't even really taught in school. My first time learning about geosciences was through Science Olympiad, and now I'm a geoscience PhD candidate. It definitely affected my trajectory."
After participating in the bridge event, Maruthavelu, from Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, reflected on her experience with Science Olympiad.
"At first it was just one of those many clubs my parents threw me in," Maruthavelu said. "But this is where I actually found what I really enjoyed doing, and I think my love for science comes from getting to experience these diverse fields."
The tournament concluded with an awards ceremony in Beckman Auditorium, where Sierra Vista Middle School and Troy High School were announced the winners of each division. Troy High School, a Science Olympiad powerhouse, has won the national competition five times in the past 10 years. This year's national tournament will take place at Wichita State University in Kansas on May 20.