The work of a group of Penn Yan Middle School students is challenging some common misconceptions of teens.

They aren’t sullenly hunched over video game controls, or smart phone screens obsessed with the latest gossip. They are working to bring their school accolades in new areas — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — when they compete in the New York State Science Olympiad at East Syracuse-Minoa this weekend.

The 33 Penn Yan students in grades six through nine will face students from 39 other school districts for a state title. To reach the state event, the team participated in two other competitions.

Preparing for the events is a challenge in itself. “You don’t know how much you should know,” said Sienna Petersen, who participated in events focusing on anatomy and physiology.

Other events fit in various categories in the following general areas:

• life, personal, and social science

• physical science and chemistry

• technology and engineering

• earth and space science

• inquiry and nature of science.

Students must prepare for events on their own, and they have been known to spend between 6 and 12 hours per week—staying after school sometimes until 10 p.m., and spending much of their Saturday hours at the school, according to Principal Kelly Johnson.

Reece Middlebrook says he has probably launched 50 or 60 gliders to prepare for his event which requires construction of an aircraft that will glide the longest distance. That depends a great deal on choosing construction materials and establishing the proper center of gravity, he explains.

All the work helps the students prepare for a career path. Abby Garvey says the skills that are honed are useful in all career areas. “It’s a great way to explore. The contest helps us with life skills and hard work,” she says.

“And we’re not just goofing around. It’s a serious thing, but we have fun,” adds Sophia Smith. 

This is the third year Penn Yan students have competed in the events that challenge students through various levels of team-based competitive tournaments. While this is a team competition, individual students choose their own events, and they find ways to support one another says teacher and coach Frank Straub, who was honored with the Outstanding Coach Award at the regional level.

“It’s been our goal to get to states. Now we want medals.” he says. The National competition will be held May 31–June 1 at Cornell University. Could the Penn Yan kids be one of two New York teams to participate? We’ll know in a few days.

The kids say the community can support the team. Experts in various fields would be welcome to help as volunteer coaches. In fact, they recently had a visit by a water quality expert from the Finger Lakes Institute, says Straub.