Steamboat Springs Rocket scientist Melissa Walsh and forensics investigator Kelsey Pal giggled with friends over bowls of ice cream Tuesday before finding themselves caught in the midst of an impromptu snowball fight.
The two Steamboat Springs Middle School students and aspiring scientists joined fellow middle school Science Olympians to celebrate the teams' berths into the state Science Olympiad competition in April.
Science Olympiad is an international nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the quality of science education and increase student interest in science. Science Olympiad tournaments are held throughout the nation, usually incorporating nearly two-dozen science-related events.
Middle school science teacher Brad Kindred started a Science Olympiad team at the middle school five years ago and participation has continued to increase, he said. This year, the school was able to form two Science Olympiad teams because of increasing interest among sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
"We have so many great kids that are so into this," Kindred said.
The middle school's 28 Science Olympians have met twice a week since October, planning, building and testing their projects and knowledge of science.
"For us, this is extracurricular," Kindred said. "This program runs on parent volunteers and people willing to put the time in."
Each student performs in at least two events at competitions, and individual and dual efforts are combined to produce team scores.
The same events are used at each Science Olympiad competition. The events are designed to test knowledge in various science disciplines such as biology, earth science, chemistry, physics, computers and technology.
"You have to have a fairly broad, general knowledge of science," Kindred said. "That's why it's so good for middle school."
The "Robo Billiard" event asks Olympians to design and build a robot capable of moving billiard balls to specific locations. In "The Wright Stuff," students build rubber band-powered airplanes. The planes are judged according to how long they stay aloft.
Each event has very specific criteria and violations can mean point deductions or disqualification.
"That's probably the hardest part for middle school kids," Kindred said. "They have to read the rules, understand the rules and adhere to the rules. If you don't stick with the procedure, you're out. This is pure science."
At a Northern Region "B" Division competition in Fort Collins earlier this month, both of the school's teams qualified for the state competition to be held in Golden in April.
Because spring break begins the weekend of the state competition, the school will field only one team, Kindred said.
Eighth-grader Alex Uriarte placed ninth out of 32 competitors in the astronomy event at the regional competition.
"I'm having a good time doing it," she said. "It's a great learning experience, especially because I want to be a doctor or scientist when I grow up. It gives you something fun to do that you can learn from."
This year is seventh-grader Andy Mucklow's second year with Science Olympiad.
"The competition (is the best part)," Mucklow said. "You meet so many new people, you have a lot of fun and you learn a lot of new things."
Eighth-grader Kelsey Pal likes the "Science Crime Busters" event, where students solve a fictional crime by identifying forensic evidence.
Regardless of which events a student participates in, Kindred has the same goals for each Science Olympian.
"I want (Science Olympiad) to build their self-esteem, I want them to understand science and I want them to be involved in the larger science community," he said.
Not to mention the challenges students face.
"You always hear parents say, 'My kid's not being challenged,'" Kindred said. "Well, they're being challenged here."