South Middle School students Patrick Shalton and Derek Prusener have on clear goal in mind for this year -- making the Science Olympiad nationals.
The eighth-graders are co-captains of South's Science Olympiad varsity team, which took third place in the state for the last three years. Only the top two in state make it to nationals, which this year will be in May in Florida.
"We need to get it this year. We're pumped," Patrick said.
"Yes! This is our year," Derek said.
The duo had a chance to practice their skills on Saturday, during a Science Olympiad Invite hosted by their school and attended by 26 teams from all over the Chicago area.
Among them were Daniel Wright Junior High School in Lincolnshire and Marie Murphy School in Wilmette, which respectively placed second and third in the country last year.
There's a need for more middle and high schools to host invitational tournaments, which are great practice before regionals, said Joe Simmons, state director for the Illinois Science Olympiad. There are about 150 to 180 teams across the state, each with up to 15 players, he said.
Kim Dyer, an eighth grade science teacher, spearheaded the effort at South Middle School, aided by a team of staff and parent volunteers.
Participating in Science Olympiad gives kids who love science the chance to find their niche, Dyer said.
"These kids have really found something to belong to with kids with similar interests," she said.
Science Olympiad competition feature both academic and hands-on categories.
While Derek worked on a rubber-band powered helicopter made of balsa wood, mylar and piano wire, Patrick worked on a robot, made almost entirely from scratch, that can pick up objects.
Others like Samarth Goel, a seventh-grader at Margaret Mead Junior High School in Schaumburg, veered toward the academic.
Samarth competed in the rocks and minerals category, where he had to identify items at 15 different stations, and the road scholar category, where he had to identify places marked on maps and draw maps.
"This is my first time here, and it's pretty cool," he said. "For next time, they should give us more time because three minutes for each station is not enough."