Coaching Tips

Coaching Tips for Science Olympiad

The first question of a new volunteer coach is;  “What am I getting myself into?”  The paper describes some of the responsibilities and options of a Science Olympiad coach. 

The are two types of coach.  A team coach and an event coach.  The team coach is the contact person for the team and mainly keeps track of who the team members are and which of the twenty plus events are being covered by the team.  The team coach also contacts the parents of interested students and works to find an event coach for each event.  This team coach registers the team with NNU c/o Anita Tannahill at 467-8361.

The event coaches (there should be many for a team) work with the students to prepare for the events.  The Science Olympiad has over twenty events, so an event coach will only be coaching one or a few events.  Many times coaches will volunteer to handle those events in which they have the most interest or in which their own student is participating.  In the past we have seen physicians coach the Disease Detective event, architects the Boomilever or Tower event and engineers the Robot events.  Not all coaching assignments need to be this well matched however.

Below is a list of things that the event coach may want to consider. One of the most important things that a coach can do is help the students break up their preparation activities into small manageable chunks with a schedule that has them prepared by the day of the competition.  Keep in mind that the students should bear the majority of the effort in preparing for the event.   

  1. Read through the event rules thoroughly with the students and understand the expectations of the event.
  2. Make a list of the reading and study materials that will be required.  Plan trips to the library or bookstore. . For events like Amphibians, books should be checked out from the library or purchased, a field trip to a museum could be lined up, a local expert might be located who can answer questions unanswered by the books.
  3. Make a list of equipment that will be needed for lab or build-it events.  Many of the materials can be found in the family home while other materials like a microscope or balance may need to be borrowed.
  4. Arrange meeting times with the students to get together and practice for the event.  In the case of a built-it event like Boomilever or Tower, this time will be used for construction and calibration.  Built-it events are a good opportunity to introduce students to basic hand tools, construction techniques and shop safety.  For a lab event like Mystery Architecture, a coach can put together sample problems to give the student a feel for competition.  When many students are preparing for the same event, the students themselves can pose sample problems for each other easing the work load on the coach.  Paper and pencil events like Road Scholar require that practice quizzes be composed for the students.  The frequency of the meetings can be from every week to every month depending upon the competitiveness of the individuals.
  5. Insist that each student keep a study notebook to organize and summarize their research and findings.
  6. The event coaches are not alone in their efforts.  The other event coaches in Boise are willing to share tips and techniques.  Although the students may compete, the coaches collaborate to increase the quality of the competition.  Call Gary Carlson, to get in contact with other coaches.  Or try the internet at and find the coaches’ sections
  7. In preparation for many events, the coach can be a good sounding board or devil’s advocate.  Challenging the students to look at issues and problems from unique perspectives or unconventional angles can help them explore their topic in greater depth.  For example, the Metric Mastery event may ask students to measure and calculate the area of a piece of cardboard.  Ask students to try and calculate the area of the cardboard both by estimating and by measuring.
  8. Finally, some events have more students than there are spots available.  In this situation the coach needs to put together an intramural or other way to pick the students to compete in the event.  The remaining students might be assigned to another school team or find space in under-represented events.

Coaching the Build-It Events

A special note about the build-it projects like Robots, Boomilever or Tower, Trajectory, and Vehicles: 

The Coaches Manual and Rules states:  “…adults doing the actual physical work involved (i.e. building a device, rocket, etc) is strictly forbidden” 

Coaches for these events should help teach their students about tips and techniques for using tools and various materials.  Examples are measuring and marking material to be cut, center punching materials before drilling a hole, using a pilot hole for a screw, choosing the correct saw for the material, and shop safety.  The coach should demonstrate the skills on scrap material and then supervise the student’s practice attempts.  Finally, it will be the student who performs the task upon the actual project workpiece.

Other coaching helps might be teaching the students the basics energy and falling masses.  In each case the coach teaches and demonstrates skills to be learned by the student.  The coach does not dictate a design to the student and then use the student as a technician to build the adult’s design. 

The skillful coach can be very useful in these events, to point out basic concepts used in the machines of everyday life such as gear reduction of a pencil sharpener, the operation of a mouse trap or the operation of the car’s scissors jack. 

A careful questioning of the student can help overcome problems in a design.  For example, if your buffer band powered vehicle stops too soon ask;  “How does your rubber band affect the duration?  Are there different types of rubber bands?  How do they differ?  What do the other competitors do?  In short, get the student thinking it a larger context. 

The coach can find local experts almost anywhere.  The local engineer down the street, the retired army officer may know a lot about trajectories.  The helpful sales rep at Radio Shack may know of an inexpensive component that will just fit the bill.  The local hobby shops also know of local rocketry and model airplane clubs who have people willing to help the newcomers. 

The build-it projects require materials.  Some of the best materials are in the toy box or second-hand store.  Some events can be built totally form Lego or Erector, or Mechanix sets.  More sophisticated designs may require trips to the electronics store or hardware store. Some local companies have lots of scraps.  Cabinet shops typically will give away very nice hardwood scraps.  Radio Shack sells some excellent experimenter kits that help test out or teach basic electronics or physics concepts. 

Encourage students to try more than one design idea if time allows.  Test each design and plan on rework and improvements.  Seldom does a design work perfectly the first time.  (Even at HP).  Multiple cycles of test and redesign spell the difference between a scud missile and a space shuttle.  This concept may be foreign to some students.  They are used to doing an assignment once and handing it in.  While a first attempt is perfectly acceptable as an entry, the best machines are usually the result of continuous tinkering and improvement.  In very popular events, where many students are vying for a place on the first string team, break the group up into smaller teams with each team working on a different design idea.  This builds some healthy competition and increases the overall learning of the team.