JHU students mentor Baltimore City high school students preparing for the Maryland Science Olympiad

The halls of Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle School in South Baltimore echo with shouts of happy ending to the day and the clatter of lockers closing as Johns Hopkins University students Tyler Lee, Margaret Lee and Danielle Wang move down the busy hall to Darlene’s Classroom Mullen on a recent afternoon.

The trio has been making this trip once a week since the beginning of the semester, but today their steps are a little faster and more deliberate. After all, the big day is only two weeks away.

In this classroom waits a team of high school students preparing to compete in the Maryland Science Olympiad, with Lee, Li, and Wang as their mentors. There is a lot of work to do before the event, set for Saturday, April 22, on the Homewood campus.

Science Olympiad is the nation’s largest STEM team competition for middle and high school students, featuring approximately 7,000 teams from all 50 states. Launched in 1984, the competition consists of 23 events that span almost every field of science, from earth science to cell biology to engineering. Each team member typically competes in three or four events based on their skills or interests. Competition is held at the regional, state and national levels, with qualifiers at each to advance.

The Cherry Hill team was one of 10 Baltimore City teams (nine of which, including Barclay Elementary Middle School, were coached by JHU students) to advance to regionals for the upcoming state competition, which is being held at JHU, where will face other top 23 high school teams from the state.

Image Caption: Johns Hopkins students Tyler Lee and Margaret Li work with Josiah, a student at Cherry Hill Elementary Middle School

Image credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

Maps and figures and desks covered in building materials and diagrams are a familiar scene to Lee and Li, both of whom were Science Olympiad competitors in middle and high school. Li, a neuroscience major in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, recorded his time as a competitor in Massachusetts, and Lee, a materials science and engineering major in the Whiting School of Engineering, competed in Hawaii, reaching the national level when they were held in Colorado State and Cornell University. A kid from the island of Oahu, he remembers the thrill of meeting a lot of people and the sense of camaraderie he felt with his teammates. He also mentored his former middle school team as a high school student, and this year he not only mentors but also volunteers with both the Charm City Science League, a group of Hopkins students who volunteer and mentor Baltimore City students in STEM, and the Olympics themselves.

Lee will help run the upcoming state tournament, which has been held annually for more than 10 years at Hopkins’ Homewood campus through a partnership between the Whiting School of Engineering’s Center for Educational Outreach and the Maryland Science Olympiad.

On this spring afternoon, Lee, Wang and Cherry Hill students Josiah and Cordell are hunched over a table covered in thin strips of wood, cutting them to the bridge’s specifications. At the state competition, this bridge will be weighted until it collapses, a load-bearing test. Another event will honor the students who can design and build a glider that stays in the air the longest.

“This is my first year in [the Olympiad]” said Cordell, a sixth-grader. He’s excited but realistic about the strength of competition he and his team will face. “These other schools are really strong and really smart, but if we come trained and focused, I think we’ll I will. We’re not done yet.”

Cordell competed in the solar system event at the state competition. He will be tested on his knowledge of space. While some of his classmates were relaxing with video games or sleeping in during spring break, he was studying spaceships and NASA missions.

“I like studying the universe around us. Things aren’t looking too good right now with how we treat Earth, so we may have to move to space. Earth is special, but if we keep polluting, I’m going to need another planet,” Cordell says.

Josiah nods from across the table as he and Lee apply glue to the ends of their dowels.

“The big push right now is preparing for our build events and then gradually covering the final material,” says Lee. He’s nervous about all the work the team has to do between now and the race, but it’s a good kind of nervousness — a fun nervousness. Students have already come this far. In the autumn they had not heard of astronomy at all. Now they would demonstrate their knowledge at a state competition.

Across the room, Mullen and her assistant coach, Cherry Hill teacher Sabrina Elliott, swap stories about their grandchildren as they time a marble’s journey through the complex, a winding roller coaster the students built, trying to get as close as possible to the official target time as Jazmin and a teammate make small changes. Both girls are also interested in chemistry and will compete in the Crime Solving Olympiad, an event that challenges them to perform forensic tests to solve a crime given a scenario, collection of evidence and possible suspects.

Team members have diverse interests, from building bridges and gliders and the solar system to crime solving, cryptography and codebreaking to experimental design. Jazmin, a seventh grader, is the sweetheart of the anatomy and physiology team. This afternoon, she prepares to be tested on her understanding of the human respiratory, digestive and immune systems by reviewing a series of digital flashcards decorated with diagrams of internal organs.

Meanwhile, Lee is trying to manage expectations — his own and the students’ — but he also has faith in these young people who show up every week and put in the effort.

“I don’t like to make any bets, but I hope their hard work pays off,” he says.

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