Riverhead High School's Science Olympiad team. Photo: Alek Lewis

Students from Riverhead High School won three medals last month competing in this year’s regional Science Olympiad tournament. 

Students traveled to Hauppauge High School to compete in the Eastern Long Island Regional Tournament on Jan. 28, and finished overall in the middle of the pack: 27th out of 52 teams. The regional competition is held only once a year and students have been preparing since the school year started — and even before that — studying and building to compete in 21 different events. 

Science Olympiad, known as the “premier team STEM competition” in the United States, is where “science meets sports,” Riverhead science teacher and team advisor Riley McHugh said. 

“We’re really passionate about it, and you have some of the best minds Riverhead has to offer in this room,” McHugh said.

Students competed in events in pairs, with each individual student on the team competing in, on average, three events. The students who brought home medals for the team were junior David Brzozowski, sophomore Ezekiel Herb, junior Lorelei Hoenig, junior Jasmin Martinez-Ortiz and junior Kiara Chabla Sarmiento. Teams who perform in the top 10 of each event receive a medal.

“We did well in other events, but not, like ‘medal well’,” McHugh said, to chuckles from team members. 

The events at Science Olympiad are diverse and cover subjects in many scientific disciplines. Some of the events involve the competitors building a device before the event to perform a certain action, while some involve completing a test or making a presentation. 

WIfi antenna. Courtesy photo

Brzozowski and Chabla Sarmiento placed third in the wifi lab event. In the event, competitors build an antenna device that is designed to transmit a signal at a specific electromagnetic frequency. Competitors must also complete a written test on electromagnetic wave propagation. 

Herb and Brzozowski placed fourth in the trajectory event. In the event, competitors build a device that launches a projectile onto a target. They said the device needed to be powered by springs, so they created an adjustable catapult-like contraption out of wood.

Brzozowski said he pulled “a lot of all nighters” juggling school work and working on the devices for the competition. “I loved it a lot, so I was willing to put in that sacrifice.

Catapult device. Courtesy photo.

Hoenig and Martinez-Ortiz placed seventh in the scrambler event. In the event, competitors build a device that transports an egg along a track as quickly as possible, and stop as close to the center of a barrier, without breaking an egg. Hoenig said the team was close to cracking the top 10 last year, which allowed them to adjust and have what she described as an “almost perfect run” this year.

“We had to spend hours at school testing it and making sure it was perfect,” Hoenig said. “I think it was just really nice to see that our hard work did pay off.” Watch video below.

Chabla Sarmiento said that after all the long afternoons working leading up to the event, “it was really nice just seeing it all come to fruition.”

The medal winners said they had little sleep going into the competition, as they were working on testing and perfecting their devices up to the last minute. 

This year’s results were better than last year’s, which was the club’s first year and competition. The team placed 32nd overall and won one medal.

Chabla Sarmiento was one of the first students who joined the club last year. “The club has been very impactful in my life. I really like like putting my knowledge of science I learned in school into use, in seeing how much I’ve learned and being able to study more of the things I like in concentrated subjects,” she said.

“I appreciate the environment that Mr. McHugh made with the club,” Sarmiento said. “We’re all pretty close; we all see each other way too often. So I think it’s just created a very nice community within the school. And I met some of my friends here, like David [Brzozowski]. I didn’t know David before, but now, me and David are like this,” she said, crossing her fingers.

Hoenig agreed. “I think it really was a good way for us all to become closer. I mean, Jasmine [Martinez-Ortiz] and I used to speak a little bit before. Now I’d say that we’re definitely good friends. It definitely brings people together.”

Chabla Sarmiento said the club also instills a sense of individual responsibility on team members, in terms of studying for their individual events, while also building a sense of comradery.

The students said they were all excited for each other when awards were presented, even those events that the team did not medal in, but improved on from the previous year. 

“They work so hard for all of them. Everyone. All of us. We all work really hard to get to where we are,” said club president Jennifer Alonzo-Moreno, a senior. “And especially these builders. All of them do so much. They spend hours and hours after school, just staying here, continuing to work on their projects and making it work. Because we got a bunch of medalists and this is the first year we’ve had a lot of them. And I’m proud of all of them, because they did incredible.”

The students credit McHugh for spending his time guiding the team and making sure they have the materials needed to compete.

“He’s doing the long hours with us. He’s doing the early morning bus rides, he buys us food,” Hoenig said.

“At this point, I really thought since my freshman year that he lived here,” Chabla Sarmiento said to laughs.

With the competition they’ve been building towards all last year finally over, the students are taking a few weeks to rest and recover from the long nights studying leading up to the regional competition. A few students new to the after school “club,” hoping to compete next year, join them. 

McHugh said the team will spend the rest of the year preparing for the next competition, strategizing as to which students will take on which competition, and building the club even more. They also fundraise to buy materials and equipment so they can build the devices needed to enter certain events. 

The top eight teams in the regional competition qualify for the state competition, which is held in Syracuse. Although the team did reach that height this year, McHugh said he has a “five year plan” where the team makes it to the state championships and the club grows enough so that the school can compete with two teams of 15 students. 

But for now, the team celebrates. As reward for their performance, McHugh is allowing students to choose the design of his fingernails for next six weeks. 

“In terms of this group, I’m probably the luckiest person in the district, getting to work with this group of kids” McHugh said. “They volunteer to spend their time here… to work on science, to work on a competitive event. I’m truly fortunate.”

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com