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IfA Student Coaches Hawai‘i Science Olympiad Team

Iolani Team at Science Olympiad

Four members of the ‘Iolani Science Olympiad team “surfing” at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Nationals in Orlando, Florida. Photo by Barb Averill.

The Science Olympiad is a program that encourages K–12 students to become interested in and excel at science. At the middle and high school level, it sponsors competitive tournaments in which teams compete in 23 science and technology subjects ranging from anatomy to water quality. Like members of sports teams, members of Science Olympiad teams must have a high level of commitment and practice diligently, and they need good coaches.

Narayan Raja of the IfA Computer Section serves as head coach for the two ‘Iolani Science Olympiad high school teams, one of which became the state champion and went on to the Nationals, in which 60 teams competed in Orlando, Florida in May. Raja recruited IfA graduate student Jabran Zahid to coach team members in astronomy.

Under the Science Olympiad rules, only two members from each team were allowed to participate in the astronomy event. The two ‘Iolani team members who competed in astronomy in the national tournament, Arnold Chang and Deanne Yugawa, finished in eighth place, the highest finish in any subject for the ‘Iolani team. This was quite an achievement, since it was only the second year that ‘Iolani competed.

The astronomy topic for 2012 was stellar evolution and type Ia supernovae. Zahid met with members of the team for about 10 Saturday sessions over a period of several months. Although the sessions took place at ‘Iolani, they were open to students from any Hawai‘i high school, and Zahid’s handouts were made available via the Web to all the Hawai‘i high schools participating in the Science Olympiad.

The sample questions for astronomy provided by the Science Olympiad were quite difficult, on the level of a second-year college astronomy course with mathematical problems. Yet, Zahid said, he had to begin at the beginning, by teaching physics basics such as Newton’s laws. The national astronomy test consisted of over 75 questions, and included looking at scientific graphs and images, and answering questions about them, as well as solving numerical problems.

Zahid called the astronomy test “very demanding,” and the overall experience “very positive” and “challenging.” He said his motivation for coaching was to obtain some teaching experience and to interact with the community. He expressed the hope that other graduate students will take advantage of this opportunity to work in the community and hone their teaching skills.

Raja said he was very impressed with both Zahid, who gave up his time on Saturdays to coach the team despite having broken his ankle, and with the students, who added the work necessary for the Science Olympiad to an already heavy homework load. IfA donors supported the project with refreshments for the Saturday study sessions, books, and DVDs.

In 2011, at Raja’s request, IfA postdoctoral fellow Jagadheep Pandian coached the ‘Iolani team in astronomy, but the project was not an official IfA outreach effort until this year.

The Science Olympiad astronomy event is sponsored by the Chandra X-ray Observatory Education & Outreach group, which is based at Harvard University. Chandra is NASA’s flagship mission for X-ray astronomy.

For more information about the Science Olympiad in Hawai‘i, see