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Marie Murphy School: A Day in the Life of an Illinois Science Olympiad Team

Marie Murphy contestants wait to compete in the  Illinois Science Olympiad.
Marie Murphy contestants wait to compete in the Illinois Science Olympiad.

April 20, 2013 – This reporter's foray into the behind-the-scenes world of the Illinois Science Olympiad State Tournament held on campus this past weekend happened by chance. After photographing one of the first events of the day, I stumbled onto Marie Murphy School's homeroom in Noyes Lab, where the team's coaches, 30 contestants (fifteen kids on the Varsity team, fifteen on the JV team, which does trial events), plus parents/chaperones were preparing to compete, planning out their strategy for the day, glued to computers (cramming?), or playing games to kill time.

Evidently one of Marie Murphy's mottos is: "A winning team is a well-fed team." Several tables at the front of their home-for-the-day were laden with both healthy and some delectable, not-so-healthy goodies.

Marie Murphy coaches discuss the schedule of the day's events.
Anne Nagle (right) and another Marie Murphy coach organize for the day's events.

Also evident—one of the challenges on tournament day is getting all the kids to the events on time and with all the necessary paraphernalia (books, goggles, lab coats, wrist name bands, etc.). Scrawled on the blackboard along the front wall of the classroom was a schedule of time slots, events, and students' names. A brain-storming session had ensued, during which coaches and parents decided which coach/parent would accompany which students to which events.

Following a general exodus, one parent/coach, physician Anne Nagle, who had remained to hold down the fort, agreed to chat. Nagle has been working with Marie Murphy's Science Olympiad team for six years. Even though her two children weren't on the team any more (they had graduated and moved on to high school), she participated again this year:

Two Marie Murphy contestants participate in "Shock Value."
Two Marie Murphy contestants set up for "Shock Value."

"You know what, they did wonderful things for my family, and this is the way I can pay back." At the suggestion that she was addicted to Science Olympiad, Nagle laughingly corrected:

"Addicted to science…I've seen it do wonderful things for kids and families, particularly our school community. I've enjoyed it, and it's a way I can help. When parents became involved in our team, that's when our team took it to the next level."

And Marie Murphy has definitely taken it to the next level. Their team has gone to nationals for the last seven or eight years, was fifth in the nation three years ago, and second in the nation for the last two years.

Nagle believes her own two kids, particularly her son, will choose careers in science. "Yes. This is a great way to foster a love and a passion for the sciences." He participated in "Anatomy," the event she coaches. She also coaches "Forestry," in which kids have to identify the leaves of about 180 trees and know facts about them. Last year, their students got first in the country. "That's why I came back," she confesses. Evidently, along with getting kids turned on to science, Nagle enjoys winning.

Eighth grader Michael Rivkin, who has participated in Science Olympiad for three years, enjoys winning too. His two events this year were Water Quality (described below) and Dynamic Planet, dealing with glaciers, about which he can rattle off loads of little-known facts. However, he confesses that of all the events in which he has participated, both this year's and past events, Awesome Aquifers is one of his favorites. Marie Murphy won nationals both years he was in that event, and he admits that might have something to do with the fact that he enjoyed the event so much: "I've grown to like that. Winning's always fun."

Michael Rivkin and Angela Lee competing in the Water Quality event.
Michael Rivkin and Angela Lee compete in the Water Quality event.

In past years, Rivkin participated in Road Scholar, which is about maps, and JunkYard Challenge, which he calls, "this really weird event" in which participants use junk to create things. "We made crazy things," he recalls. "Our most successful thing was probably our catapult. We made it entirely out of paper and duct tape. And it was probably strong enough to hold a fat person, because when you roll up paper, it gets really strong."

Rivkin thinks he'll go into some kind of science as a career. He really likes engineering, especially aerodynamics. His sister, who is going into neuroscience, also participated in Science Olympiad in eighth grade. "That's probably what got her so interested, because she did an event about anatomy," he acknowledged.

With wisdom beyond his years, Rivkin, who recognizes that many of his peers are addicted to electronic games, has chosen to do something that's a bit more rewarding and a lot more worthwhile than becoming a virtual couch potato himself. Participating in Science Olympiad "gives me something to do," he says, "instead of being like the people who just sit home and play video games all day. I have something better to do. I mean, it's not a waste of time, because coming to competitions is always fun. Winning's fun."

And he's won a lot, which has given him a ticket to Champaign-Urbana three times for state tournaments and national tournaments at University of Wisconsin in Madison; University of Central Florida; and possibly Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. "If we do well," qualified Rivkin.

Angela Lee
Angela Lee giving a private concert on the instrument she built for the "Sounds of Music" event.

Participating in the "Water Quality" event with Rivkin was Angela Lee, another eighth grader. "Water Quality" is three-pronged: ecology; identifying macroinvertebrates, some which can only survive in certain types of water; and analysis of water, by different chemicals and pollutants.

Lee isn't necessarily interested in pursuing the field of water quality. "Looking at bugs all day really isn't my hobby." She is interested in biology, but questions, "I wonder if I could handle looking at intestines and stuff like that?" She did the "Microbes" event last year. Maybe microbiology.

Or maybe music or instrument design. Lee is a cellist, and for her other event, "Sounds of Music," she designed and built a stringed instrument shaped somewhat like a cello, but with angles. As a musician, she appreciates having learned about the physics of acoustics so she knows how and why stringed instruments like guitars and cellos work. "Now, when I'm playing the cello, I'm like, 'Oh, I know why this sounds nice. I know why playing closer to the bridge makes a nicer sound.'"

What does Lee appreciate about Science Olympiad? "I like to have to work hard. I enjoy studying for my own pleasure/leisure. It's just fun in its own way. People don't usually classify studying as something enjoyable. If you're into whatever you're studying, it can be interesting."

Marie Murphy competitors during the "???" event.
Marie Murphy students compete during an event.

While members of the media are supposed to remain impartial, this reporter was admittedly somewhat biased during the Awards Ceremony at the end of the day on Saturday. Having "followed" the school around to events all day to get photos, I definitely had a vested interest as the winners of each event were announced. I cheered when Marie Murphy won a gold medal for an event, and snapped a photo of the kids' beaming faces. I was concerned when Marie Murphy didn't medal in an event at all. (I suspect the coaches were too.) I watched with consternation as another team's name kept cropping up just slightly above that of Marie Murphy's when medals for an event were announced. I had first heard of Marie Murphy that morning. If this was how I felt, how must the school's contestants, coaches, and parents feel, who had invested so much time and energy into this?

How did Marie Murphy do in the tournament? They won second place (right behind the other team whose name kept cropping up). However, the top two teams receive an invitation to the national tournament, so Michael Rivkin and company will be heading to Dayton in May. This reporter is tempted to go and cover that event too…just to do some completely unbiased reporting, of course.

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative
More: 6-8 Outreach, Champaign-Urbana Community, Marie Murphy School, Science Olympiad, 2013

Two Marie Murphy contestants receive their gold medals.
Two Marie Murphy contestants who had just received gold medals for the "Anatomy" event.
Marie Murphy contestants watch results for the events.
Marie Murphy contestants nervously watch the event results during the ISO Awards Ceremony.
Several Marie Murphy students celebrate over their trophy.
Several Marie Murphy students celebrate over their trophy.