Las Vegas Sun

June 16, 2021

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Mad science? Nevada Science Olympiad championship embroils two local schools in controversy

Centennial Science Olympiad Team 2012

Courtesy of Andrew Douglass

The Centennial High School Science Olympiad team after being declared the second place finishers at the state Science Olympiad competition held in Reno on March 3, 2012. A week after the competition, it was discovered that Centennial actually won the competition and the right to compete at the national Science Olympiad in May, but Clark High School’s Science Olympiad team, which was initially declared winner, is steadfast in their resolves to compete in the national tournament, prompting threats of legal action.

Test your knowledge

  • Sample questions (and answers) from Science Olympiad:
  • Which level of protein structure contains alpha helices? (Secondary)
  • Which rock is composed of small round pebbles and doesn't fizz? (Conglomerate)
  • If a lake is able to support a thriving community of caddisflies, how serious is its pollution level? (Not very; Cadisflies are very pollution sensitive).
  • Which structure surrounds the glomularis in nephrons? (Bowman's capsule)

Who would have thought that choosing Nevada’s high school representative to a national science competition would hinge on an ethical question?

In a quandary more common in athletics than in academics, a scoring error at a recent Nevada Science Olympiad competition has pitted two rival Las Vegas high schools against each other over which will compete in May at the National Science Olympiad tournament.

The ensuing brouhaha now has one school refusing to comment to the media and the other airing its grievances at a recent Clark County School Board meeting, even threatening legal action.

The quagmire began March 3, when Nevada staged its 12th annual state Science Olympiad tournament, which determines the winning high school and middle school that goes on to compete in the National Science Olympiad tournament. The National Science Olympiad is a nonprofit organization that has been promoting science education for more than three decades through “quiz bowl”-style competitions.

More than 400 students from 12 Nevada high schools and 10 middle schools competed in the state Science Olympiad at UNR. Teams of 15 students faced off in a series of events, answering questions such as, “What structure surrounds the glomularis in nephrons?” (For anyone curious, it’s the Bowman’s capsule.)

After a grueling competition with 23 events, Clark High School was declared the state champion and ticketed to advance to the national tournament in May at the University of Central Florida. It would be Clark’s third appearance on the national stage.

However, 10 days later, the coach of Centennial High School’s Science Olympiad team, after requesting the score sheets, discovered a mistake in how his team’s score was calculated. Instead of coming in second, Centennial should have been awarded first place, earning its first trip to the national tournament.

Richard Vineyard, state director of the Nevada Science Olympiad program, confirmed there was a mishap in tabulating Centennial’s score on its last event. After a long day of running the tournament and in a rush to get the final results out before the award ceremonies and sending the students back home, Vineyard made a human error: He transposed two numbers and Clark was mistakenly declared the winner.

At this point, Vineyard had a difficult decision to make. Both teams had worked extremely hard, researching upwards of 20 hours a week since the fall to prepare for the state competition. Each school had participated in the competition to win. Centennial was eager to go to its first national tournament, and Clark had been ecstatic it had been declared state champions three years in a row.

“It was a major error, an unfortunate error,” Vineyard said. “But it wasn’t done purposely. I’m glad we caught it.”

Vineyard, who has been organizing and running Science Olympiad competitions in Utah and Nevada for the past 20 years, had never before seen a situation like this. Making a scoring error on an individual event is rare to begin with, but it’s even rarer to have a scoring error on an event affect the final team results, Vineyard said.

In the past, minor errors were corrected immediately. Medals for good performance on individual events were sent out and the official records amended. But never had a final team score been so impacted by an error.

“I probably should have had a second person check the results, but in 20 years of doing this, I’ve never had an issue,” Vineyard said. “In the future, I will do that.”

After explaining the scoring fiasco to both teams, Vineyard ordered another trophy for Centennial — it didn’t seem fair to him to strip Clark of its trophy after 10 days as the “official” state champions — and consulted with the nonprofit headquarters about Nevada’s national tournament qualifier.

Vineyard asked to have a second Nevada high school team represent the state at the National Science Olympiad tournament. His request was denied.

National policy dictates that the results of the National Science Olympiad are final after 24 hours. Although Nevada doesn’t have such a policy for its state competition, Vineyard said he thought too much time had elapsed between the event and when the error was discovered.

After discussing further with School District officials, area superintendents and principals of both Centennial and Clark, Vineyard left the decision to Clark’s Science Olympiad team coach Jim Miller and Clark Principal Jill Pendleton — who both declined to speak to the Sun.

Vineyard’s hope was this matter would be resolved amicably — that either Clark would voluntarily relinquish its title and spot in the national competition or Centennial would understand that life isn’t fair and move on.

Not too surprisingly, neither Clark nor Centennial budged.

Clark already had registered for the national tournament and began making travel arrangements to fly to Florida in May, Vineyard said. Miller said Clark had been announced the winner on the school and district website, he added.

“They thought they had won, and they didn’t think they should vacate,” Vineyard said.

The Centennial team saw this as an “injustice.” They were the rightful winners of the competition, they said, and should not be denied the right to compete in the national tournament.

“We were so disappointed and appalled,” Centennial Science Olympiad coach Andrew Douglass said of Clark’s decision not to relinquish its spot in the national competition.

The Centennial team was crestfallen but determined to right what team members saw as a wrong. A dozen members lobbied the School Board last Thursday, urging the School District to weigh in. The School District declined to comment for this story, stating the matter was between the nonprofit National Science Olympiad and its member teams.

Wearing a suit, Centennial senior Josh Curtis — a founding member of the science team — argued that the example set by the adults in this situation was “disconcerting.” If the “injustice” isn’t corrected, students are likely to become apathetic and cynical about those in authority — especially those who don’t act with honesty and integrity, Curtis said.

“Some have shirked their responsibility and passed on tough decisions that should have been made by them. Others have refused to make the correct decision in the face of what is fair and just,” Curtis said. “If Centennial is not recognized as the winner, Clark students will learn that if you refuse to acknowledge the rules and ignore the truth, you will get what you want. They will see that lying and cheating are acceptable actions.”

In light of the Centennial students’ testimony at the recent School Board, Vineyard once again reached out to both teams.

In a letter to Miller, Vineyard said “the only, even marginally, positive way for this to conclude is for the Clark HS team to decide to be a good sportsman and transfer the invitation to the national tournament to Centennial HS, as they are actually the first-place team.” The state entity would waive registration fees for the 2013 state competition and reimburse Clark for any nonrefundable costs associated with any travel cancellations, Vineyard said.

Clark has not yet decided what to do, and the two schools are now contemplating whether to have a run-off tournament to decide who will move on.

“It doesn’t seem that fair to ignore the results of the competition,” Douglass said. “It gives us a 50-50 proposition.”

Jordanna Payne, Centennial’s team captain, agreed.

“This is not a decision that should be up to any person. The competition itself determines which team earned the right to compete at the national tournament,” the Centennial senior said. “This is a very straightforward concept, however, due to the mistakes made and the hesitance to accept responsibility for them, this issue has lost its simplicity. This has now become a matter of integrity, or the lack thereof.”

Caught in the middle of this quagmire is Vineyard, who last week received a letter from an attorney — a parent of one of the Centennial Science Olympiad members. Douglass, who is not involved in the legal matter, said his students did not want to bring dishonesty to Clark and hoped that the matter would not come to a legal fight.

“We’re hoping reasonable heads prevail,” Douglass said.

However, the threat of legal action and the ongoing quarrel between the two teams has Vineyard losing sleep and questioning whether he should continue volunteering his time and energy to keep the competition running. Vineyard — who is the science assessment director with the State Department of Education — came to Nevada more than a decade ago because he wanted to plant a love of science in the desert.

Now, Vineyard sees that plant withering under the intense heat of controversy and competition.

“We’re moving away from science and learning, to winning and competition,” he said. “If it’s more important to win than to learn, then it’s outlived its purpose.

“This situation has sucked out all the joy and passion I have had for the Science Olympiad program and made me question whether or not I want to continue.”

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