While thousands of world-class athletes competed at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, hundreds of potentially world-class scientists competed at an invitational Science Olympiad in Grayslake.
"This is where engineers come from," said Joe Honomichl, a volunteer coach for the Science and Arts Academy in Des Plaines, who proctored the hovercraft competition, one of 23 events in which hundreds of middle school students participated Saturday as part of Grayslake Middle School's invitational tournament.
"Kids are naturally curious and want to explore the world around them," said Grayslake Middle School science teacher and coach Nicole McRee, who helped organize the Olympiad. "We have to catch them when they're curious and give them the tools to answer questions and solve problems."
The Science Olympiad consists of events ranging from written tests on individual subjects to design-and-build competitions that require participants to construct towers, aircraft and other devices including buggies and hovercrafts that transport up to 16 rolls of pennies for 15 seconds.
Forty-seven schools, including 29 from the Chicago area, participated, McRee said. Most schools field varsity and junior varsity teams made up of 15 to 20 students, said McRee. Grayslake Middle School has 74 students on five teams. The school has placed in the top 10 for 10 years running, McRee said.
Grayslake teammates Cale Amador and Miriya Vo attribute their success in the hovercraft competition to trial and error.
"Each one of us gives an idea, and we test it to see what happens," said Cale, 13. "This sort of thing is fun."
"You get to learn new things," said Miriya, who designed the team's spy-themed T-shirt, which includes Immanuel Kant's quote "Dare to know."
First-timers Owen Foley, 11, and Seth Albert, 10, from Frederick School in Grayslake entered the buggy competition.
"I thought it would be fun building a car," Seth said of their battery-powered vehicle built from wood, with CDs for wheels.
Not all the participants experienced the thrill of victory Saturday. Kieran Fitzgerald and Oskar Houck, both 11, of Our Lady of Mount Caramel in Chicago, were among those who came away disappointed. Their hovercraft didn't perform as expected.
"We learned a lot about positioning the pennies," said Kieran with good-natured resignation.
"Losing is just a part of life," said Oskar, who wore his team's signature white lab coat, which was several sizes too large. "We're not the best, but we're not the worst."
The boys say they believe their design is sound and they will stick with it. Except for one thing.
"We need more airflow," Kieran said.
Working together, solving problems, thinking on their feet are among the skills events like science Olympiads promote, said McRee.
And when they fail, like their Pyeongchang counterparts, these Olympians pick themselves up, dust themselves off and try again.