35 Years and Still Going Strong


Next week, the Clinton Middle School Science Olympiad team will board a bus and head to Cornell for the National Science Olympiad competition, the 35th competition.

Founded in 1984, Science Olympiad is one of the premier science competitions in the nation, providing rigorous, standards-based challenges to nearly 8,000 teams in all 50 states. 

Science Olympiad hosts 450 tournaments annually on college campuses and holds professional development workshops that showcase innovative science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. 

Each year, a team of fifteen students compete in twenty-three events across all science disciplines, including astronomy, biology, chemistry, environmental science, geology, meteorology, physics, and technical writing. Events range from knowledge and application to labs and process-oriented skills.

Science Olympiad is the brain child of Gerard Putz, Jack Cairns, and Sharon Putz. Back in the spring of 1985, the first national competition was held at Michigan State. South Carolina sent only a high school representative to nationals that year; however, by the second year, Clinton was represented at Nationals when South Carolina held the first ever middle school competition at Newberry College and Bell Street Middle won. The team again went to Michigan State University.

Thanks in large part to Mr. Michael Mack, a graduate of Newberry College, Science Olympiad fever caught hold in Laurens County School District 56. Mr. Mack, Rosemary Wicker, and a few others galvanized the support and began a tradition for a competitive love for all things science.

When Mr. Mack moved to Clinton High School in the fall of 1986, Science Olympiad was started there as well, making its first trip to Nationals in 1989.

Over the years, Science Olympiad had peaks and valleys in District 56; however, thanks to the capable leadership of coaches such as Dianne Summer, Dianne Evans, Cathy Dailey and Annabel Wayne, the middle school fire shone brightly. When Joanne Hoppenhauer came to Clinton, she and Cecelia Prather formed a dynamic duo and started Bell Street back on its road to prominence, winning the state from 2003 – 2007. After leaving for Clinton High School in 2007, the middle school team transitioned to Terri O’Shields, who has coached it every year since 2007 (and has won every state championship since taking over). Ms. O’Shields and her posse of coaches truly believe each student will change the world.

With such a strong feeder program at the middle school, Mr. Mack harnessed the power of budding talent and won a string of consecutive state championships from 2009 – 2014 and from 2016 – 2018. 

Although the teams have head coaches, the real power of Science Olympiad is in the volunteer coaches who give their time and resources simply because they love the subject and the students. The true heroes of the success in District 56 are the coaches and the sense of team the head coach provides … everyone is welcome at the table. 

This year marks the last time Science Olympiad will see Gerard and Sharon Putz. They are retiring. Jack Cairns retired several years ago. It is symbolic for them to go out on the 35th anniversary of the dream, the tournament they crafted years ago with passion, purpose, and practice. 

No doubt, they will be missed on a national level; however, the dream remains. 

STEM education is more important now than even in 1984. Efforts to expose students to the love of science, the beauty of science outside the classroom, and the impact of caring and compassionate coaches, volunteers, and donors. 

The bigger concern currently in District 56 is the survivability of Science Olympiad in Clinton. 

This year, the CMS team has only 18 students; the high school (which didn’t even compete in state for the first time ever) had only ten. Science Olympiad is hard work … it involves sacrifice, a drive for excellence, a dedication to a depth of understanding far beyond the middle or high school curriculum, and a desire  to prioritize learning as critically important.

Fortunately for us, Clinton Elementary School will have a team in the 2020 State Tournament. I hope Eastside and Joanna-Woodson will too. I have seen first hand the benefits of Science Olympiad for our own children. Katie competed in Disease Detective since middle school and now is an epidemiologist in Columbia; Maggie minored in Geology and is pursuing a law degree with an emphasis in Environmental Law.

The legacy of Science Olympiad is the impact it has on the team members. Not everyone becomes scientists, but everyone leaves knowing they’ve been a part of something special … something larger than themselves.

Thank you, Gerard and Sharon, for the dream that became Science Olympiad and for the gift that keeps on giving.


(Dr. David O’Shields is District 56 superintendent.)

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