What is the secret ingredient that has made Torah Academy of Bergen County victorious in six of the last 10 Science Olympiads for yeshiva high schools in the New York and New Jersey area?
According to co-captain Avraham Kahan, a senior from Teaneck, the all-boys’ atmosphere in the school fosters a friendly competitive spirit. “We’re all guys, and we’re always pushing each other to be better,” he said. “We work hard and we play hard.”
TABC’s team took first place in the most recent Olympiad, held March 31.
Science Olympiad competitions are like academic track meets, where teams from schools in many parts of the country and abroad compete in events designed to spark their interest in genetics, earth science, chemistry, anatomy, physics, geology, mechanical engineering, and technology.
The meets typically are held on Saturdays, however, making it difficult or impossible for Sabbath-observers to participate. In conjunction with the New York-based Jewish Education Project, Touro College’s Lander College for Men has hosted an annual Science Olympiad on Sundays since 2011.
The most recent competition drew 15-member teams from 13 local Jewish schools, including the Frisch School of Paramus and Yeshivat Heichal Hatorah of Teaneck.
“Science is transforming the world around us, and we hope that Orthodox Jewish men and women will be at the forefront of those changes, for the good,” Dr. Moshe Sokol, dean of Lander College for Men, said. “We seek to inspire amongst students a love for the sciences, and an understanding of how science works.”
The 12 events on March 31 were titled Write-It-Do-It, Road Scholar, Mousetrap Vehicle, Herpetology, Fermi Questions, Dynamic Planet, Designer Genes, Code Busters, Circuit Lab, Chemistry Lab, Boomilever, and Anatomy and Physiology. TABC placed first in seven of these events, and second in three others.
Two team members usually participate in each challenge. “At the beginning of the school year, the boys decide who will represent the school in each of the contests,” faculty adviser Kenneth Dietz, a TABC biology and chemistry teacher, explained.
The team included students from all four grades, but most were juniors and seniors who had participated before. This was the third consecutive win for the Teaneck school.
Co-captain Nathanael Vinar, a senior from Teaneck, won his 12th career medal that Sunday, setting a record for the most medals won in the history of the Jewish Education Project-Lander Science Olympiad.
“His name is legend,” co-captain Avraham said admiringly.
Nathanael’s challenge this year was building a foam-board and balsa-wood car powered only by two spring-loaded mousetraps. “I had done the Mousetrap Vehicle event last year, so that gave us an edge,” he explained. TABC’s vehicle coasted to second place, behind North Shore Hebrew Academy.
“It was very satisfying to win the competition again,” Nathanael added. “We had lost some core members who graduated last year, and I was nervous about how we would do.”
Ephraim Helfgot, a Teaneck junior, participated in Road Scholar, one of the seven Olympiad events in which TABC bested all other competitors. In this classic Science Olympiad contest, participants must interpret, collect data from, and answer questions about topographical GPS maps.
“The award ceremony at the end was great. We went crazy cheering for each other,” Ephraim said. His favorite aspects of the Olympiad were “the feeling of community, the competitiveness, and being part of a team — and, look, it’s fun winning!”
Although some of the categories cover subjects taught in school, others — such as herpetology, the study of amphibians — do not, necessitating what Mr. Dietz calls “a lot of self-study.”
At meetings after school, the teammates worked on projects that required building. One was the boomilever, a structure intended to support the most load with the least possible weight. TABC won that event, too.
“The biggest draw of the Science Olympiad was the competitive spirit,” Mr. Dietz said. “It provided a chance to show off a talent that you normally wouldn’t get to express.”
Dr. Ann Shinnar of Teaneck, a chemistry professor at Lander College and liaison to the competition, said that all 195 contestants benefited from the Science Olympiad experience regardless of whether they took home prizes.
“It’s an opportunity for students to gain confidence as well as skills, and we are proud to bring this program to the Jewish community,” she said.
Dr. Shinnar ensures that contestants have all the equipment they need, and she recruits volunteers from the college to help out at the competition. She also invites a different scientist each year to talk about his or her training and career path. The goal is to inspire the high school generation.
This year’s speaker was Dr. John Loike, who joined the faculty of Lander College of Arts & Sciences in the fall of 2017, after serving as the co-director for graduate studies in the department of physiology and cellular biophysics and the director of special programs in the Center for Bioethics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.