Helping to bring the annual Nevada Science Olympiad (NVSO) tournament to UNLV for the first time was a full-circle moment for alumna Jennifer Deng.
She had been a participant of the event when she was a young student. So it was a nostalgic moment when she saw a particularly haggard student who appeared to have endured sleepless nights preparing for this year's statewide STEM-focused (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) competition for middle school and high school students. She had admired the boy's mental resilience, fortitude, and ability to advocate for himself to resolve a scheduling conflict.
“Although he looked like he was tired, he seemed to really just enjoy himself and be proud of the fact that he had five events,” said Deng, ’20 BS Kinesiology, NVSO alumni relations coordinator.
Such a moment may not have happened had Deng not teamed up with fellow alumna, Tracy Viscosi, ’04 M.Ed. Educational Policy and Leadership. Viscosi is the NVSO executive director. The event had been held at high schools and UNR before the pandemic, was canceled in 2020, and conducted virtually in 2021 and 2022.
Two years ago, Viscosi and Deng approached Sharon Jalene, associate dean of academic and student affairs at the School of Integrated Health Sciences, to bring the event back in person and elevate the experience by holding it at UNLV.
“We wanted to give that spotlight to a place closer to home, and we wanted to make it a very collaborative effort to keep students who are high achievers and with a high potential in STEM to stay in STEM in Nevada,” Deng said. “And we wanted to [take] the opportunity to show the younger students and their parents what the university has to offer.”
The NVSO tournament required a unique collaboration of students, faculty, and staff volunteers, and campus partners across several UNLV schools, colleges, and departments. Hosting the event is a community service that demonstrates support for STEM initiatives, said Jalene, director of the steering committee for UNLV’s partnership with NVSO. It’s also an invaluable opportunity to recruit talented students.
“To have the best and the brightest STEM students coming to campus is great for the university and the community,” Jalene said. “Our best students in the state of Nevada are being pretty strongly recruited to go out of state because these other institutions are really looking for students.”
In addition to thanking the more than 100 UNLV volunteers and being “heartened” by the work of participating schools’ advisors, Jalene credits the event’s success to UNLV President Keith Whitfield, who provided financial support and delivered a keynote for the awards video, and Marta Meana, strategic STEM advisor to the president.
Deng, an enterprise product specialist in the Clark County School District’s Enterprise Student Information Systems Department, was under Viscosi’s tutelage when she competed in NVSO and then one of Jalene’s kinesiology students at UNLV. Viscosi, director of the same CCSD department, is pursuing a Ph.D in Interaction and Media Sciences from UNLV.
The trio know the value of Nevada Science Olympiad, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization not affiliated with CCSD, and the importance of holding its annual culminating event at UNLV.
“UNLV is already extremely involved with K-12 education,” Viscosi said. “This is just one more thing that shows how involved and how important K-12 education is to our university … The support that they’re showing by being involved in this competition is extraordinary.”
They are among those already planning next year’s event with an eye to host a national tournament in the future.
“If we were able to host the national event, we’re going to be bringing the best and the brightest from the entire country and their parents, and national attention to our engineering programs and our health-care programs and our medical school,” Jalene said.
The Face of STEM’s Future
The students who competed this year began preparing in September 2022, when the specific study areas were announced: 189 students from 11 high schools participated in 23 events at UNLV on March 25; 71 students from four middle schools also competed in another 23-event division.
Some competitors wore T-shirts that said, “Stand back. We’re going to try science.” But that belied the sophistication of the events and the growing capabilities of the students.
The competitions included knowledge (in ornithology, for example, students were asked to identify birds through photos or audio files of calls); lab work (students were posed a crime scene scenario and given powders, fibers, hair, and other evidence to test to identify a suspect); and engineering (students had months to build a small airplane and were evaluated on how long it stayed airborne). Other events involved catapult-building, bridge-building, computer coding, and identifying galaxies through photos.
A video streamed the next day announced results, and winners went to the national competition held in Wichita, Kansas.
UNLV volunteers devised, administered, and scored exams based on the prescribed events from the national Science Olympiad. Others helped check in and guide competitors throughout the campus for the tournament.
“It was a great day, Viscosi said. “I think the students had a wonderful time. Having them step foot on campus, spend the day there, having event supervisors who are actual students in either the undergrad or graduate programs and even some professors participate in events — that was outstanding for the students to have that experience.”
Jalene said she was very impressed with the young students. “They were so engaged and well prepared and really gave our graduate students and faculty a run for their money because they really knew their stuff. It was great to see such a diverse group of students. What you saw was the face of the future of STEM."