JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – They may call themselves “The Nerds,” but to their peers at the River City Science Academy charter school, the group of 15 dedicated bookworms is as celebrated as any championship-level athletics team.
On Saturday, River City’s science team will compete for the second consecutive year at the Science Olympiad National Tournament held at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. River City’s squad is one of two teams from Florida, and one of 60 middle school teams from around the country that will compete, along with a Japanese team also vying for the championship. There are nearly 8,000 Science Olympiad teams in the country.
River City Science Academy is an independent, A-rated K-12 charter school that serves 2,800 students at four Jacksonville campuses. The school focuses on a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum. It’s also a Title I school, with over 50 percent of its students on a free- and reduced-price lunch program.
It will cost $25,000 to fund the trip, and the school continues to seek tax-deductible donations from parents, community partners, STEM organizations in Jacksonville and a local Rotary club.
River City’s middle school team, which is allowed five ninth-graders, is jubilant at earning another shot at the national title after performing well in state and regional competitions. But Coach Ahmet Dastan said his squad is keenly aware of the challenges it will face.
“This is the hardest competition,” Dastan said. “The top 10 or 15 teams are always there. They know what they’re going up against: the best students from around the country.”
Competitors will be tested on subjects such as anatomy and physiology, the solar system, thermodynamics and water quality, while others will participate in building events.
Faith Canlas, a 15-year-old ninth-grader, said Dastan assigned students to study specific subjects in which they specialize. Faith and teammate Amelia Amarrador, also 15 and in ninth grade, say they are well-prepared for an onslaught of anatomy and physiology questions pertaining to the lymphatic, cardiovascular and urinary systems.
“I’ve always liked science better than the other subjects,” said Faith, the team’s co-captain. “There will be packets of tests and you usually have to answer about 200 questions in 50 minutes. It’s mostly written answers and multiple choice.”
Amelia, the team’s captain, said the questions are similar to tests medical professionals must pass.
“You may have to diagnose (illnesses) and prescribe drugs,” she said.
Gathered in a quiet classroom on a recent morning, the team reflected on the long hours of study and training they have undertaken to represent River City.
Throughout the year, they have stayed until 6:30 almost every Wednesday night and come to school from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays to prepare.
Mustafa Bektas, 15, said he is excited for the Battery Buggy competition.
“It’s basically a small car that has to go from Point A to Point B using batteries,” he said. “There’s a braking system and it’s self-steering.”
Critical thinking skills may be tested in other ways. For instance, students may be given three sheets of tin foil, pennies, and a bucket of water. They must then figure out how many sheets of foil can hold the most pennies while floating in water.
Seventh-grader Keira Eastham, 13, is among three team members who will compete in the Experimental Design event.
“You’re given a bunch of materials and a goal for what your experiment should (accomplish),” she said. “It’s like a science fair project you have to do in 50 minutes.”
Last year was a learning experience for the team, said Alex Dreyer, an outreach assistant at River City.
“They were really confident to make it and to place first in Florida,” she said. “Then, when they got there, they realized how (stern) the competition was.”
This year, Dreyer said, the goal is to advance far enough to make it on stage to receive a medal for at least one event.
According to Dastan, who also has led an Atlanta-area school to the Science Olympiad, it’s not easy for a Title I school such as River City to earn a berth at the national competition.
“We have limited resources,” he said. “We have three or four parents who have supported (the team), but we expected more. It really helps to have the parents’ support. The more support we have, the more successful we’ll be.
“It’s been a long journey,” he said.
And it’s not over yet.