Middle school students at St. Mary Catholic School in Newton are amped up — having just recently competed in their first ever Science Olympiad earlier this month.

The alternative extracurricular activity is in its infancy at St. Mary, with this being the first year it was offered, but it is a familiar experience for fourth-grade teacher and coach John Pescitelli. Having helped start Science Olympiad teams at two other schools, Pescitelli was excited to bring the opportunity to St. Mary in his first year at the school.

Pescitelli noted that while St. Mary students have numerous competitive outlets, both athletic and academic, he looked forward to bringing the Science Olympiad to the school because of the real-world application it facilitates regarding the subjects students are learning about in school.

"I enjoy it because it allows the kids to see the outcome of what they're learning in class," Pescitelli said. "It does have a potential use; it's not just something I can learn today and forget tomorrow. It puts the knowledge in their hands."

St. Mary middle school students competed at a regional meet hosted by Kansas State University Polytechnic in Salina on Jan. 10, participating in a variety of the 23 events featured in this year's Science Olympiad.

Activities range from written tests to hands-on practical applications to building projects in various categories — like life, personal and solar science; Earth and space science; physical science and chemistry; technology and engineering; and inquiry and nature of science. Some of this year's events included "Disease Detectives" (in life, personal and social science) and "Crime Busters" (in physical science and chemistry).

Teams consist of 15 members and points are scored in both individuals events, as well as overall throughout the competition.

"It's set up like a science track meet," Pescitelli said. "There are 23 different science events that cover all fields of science. Pairs of students partner up and they compete in their special event, just like somebody would compete in the 100-meter dash, the high jump and the pole vault."

Preparation for the competition started back in October, with regular practices and meetings before and after school, but a lot of the work fell on the students to complete on their own time.

"For the most part, it's kid-driven. The kids come up with the ideas, the kids build, the kids do the prep work and it all teaches responsibility," Pescitelli said.

Upon starting up the Science Olympiad team at St. Mary, Pescitelli noted there was a lot of enthusiasm among the student body — as well as the parents, with many attending the competition and helping out where they could.

Going into the competition, Pescitelli said his team members were asking about his expectations. Knowing the experience other teams in the field had compared to St. Mary's team, he noted he was pleasantly surprised with its fifth-place finish overall — with five groups also placing in individual events.

"For our kids, mostly sixth graders, to get in there and compete — and our seventh and eighth graders — to hang with those bigger schools, I was really happy with our outcome," Pescitelli said.

Pairs earning first-place finishes at the regional Science Olympiad included seventh graders Jacob Antle and Sarah Musser ("Wright Stuff"), sixth grader Tyson Weber and seventh grader Marco Hernandez ("Battery Buggy") and eighth grader Lezlly Acevedo and seventh grader Jiovani Valdivia ("Crime Busters"). Those finishing third included sixth graders Leah Littlejohn and Nora Rusche ("Towers") and Danaily Mercer, along with Rusche, ("Meteorology").

Other team members included sixth graders Jacob McKinney, Sophia Stutey, Tavin Monares, Austin Marsden, Gavin Stucky and eighth grader Alex Vidac.

St. Mary will find out if it qualified as a team for state competition — held at Wichita State University in April — in mid-February. Regardless, Pescitelli said he is hopeful the excitement will remain and he will be able to recruit a full team again next year.

More information on the Science Olympiad and various events can be found at www.soinc.org.