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Today & tomorrow I’m down in Wellington. This year Victoria University is hosting the training camp for New Zealand’s Biology Olympiad aspirants, but I got invited to come down & help out at some of the lab classes. Which is great, because I don’t want to lose contact with the IBO organisation (or the the wider umbrella group. Science OlympiaNZ).

For me, the highlight of these training camps (which up until this year were hosted at Waikato Waikato & UniTech) is the interaction with a bunch of gifted and talented young New Zealanders. But I also value the opportunity to talk with the rest of the team of dedicated individuals who make the camps possible. This afternoon I had a lengthy session with my friend Angela Sharples, who leads the Biology organising team & is also Chair of the Science OlympiaNZ Council. One of the things up for discussion was the question: what do universities gain from their association with the movement?  After all, we’re talking fairly small numbers of students here – 19 at this year’s camp – and they’re not all going to go on to study at the host institution. And these camps do cost a lot to run, in terms of materials, resources, & staff time.

One obvious benefit is the positive impact the association has on the university’s profile with schools and teachers who are involved in the program. (Personally I think all secondary schools should be encouraging their top students to apply for an Olympiad – there are significant benefits to be had by doing so. This is probably most obvious for smaller schools, where you might have only a few students working at this level – it can be hard to find the time & resources to support them, & the students might well feel a bit isolated. If they’re selected for the Olympiad tutorial system, a whole new level of material & coaching becomes available to them, & they also become part of a wider group of like-minded students.) So even if only a few, or no, students from an IBO camp come to the host uni, nonetheless their teachers & peers will hear all about it, & that may help shape future study decisions.

But I think there’s another, & arguably more significant gain to be had for the universities. And this has to do with how well we ‘bridge’ our to the academic life of the institution. I know from Waikato’s hosting experience that the teachers involved are always very happy to talk about curriculum, assessment, syllabi & so on, and what is & isn’t available to students in their classrooms in terms of resources like microscopes & various bits of apparatus. This means that the academics involved in the camps gain an understanding of what they can expect from their students: what they’ve studied (& haven’t studied) for the various Achievement Standards; what sort of assessment practices they’ve been exposed to; & so on. (And make no mistake – there can be a real gulf between what lecturers assume about students’ prior learning, and what those students have actually done.) This can then shape what & how we teach in our first-year classrooms, which can enhance the students’ learning & also their overall experience of tertiary study. And that in turn can have a positive effect on their progression to subsequent study in a particular discipline, & the successful completion of that study. (And that, at a time when the government has signalled it’s moving to a funding model that takes completion & retention rates into consideration, is surely a significant benefit to the institution.)

And in the long term… well, I share Angela’s dream on this one. It would be great to see our top academic students valued & supported in the same way as our sporting teams. (As it is, the various Olympian movements have in the past operated on the smell of an oily rag, & their teams’ considerable successes on the world stage have been supported by those dedicated, selfless teachers who put in hours & hours of hard work for free, on top of their ‘day’ jobs – & by students’ families, who put time & effort  & money into supporting them. The Science OlympiaNZ came into being through the extremely generous and very-much-appreciated support of the Todd Foundation, & it would be wonderful if other funding bodies could also come on board.)

Given the adulation awarded to successful national sporting teams, I suspect this may require something of a culture shift! But we need our top students to take science & technology at school, we need them to study these subjects at university & go on into related careers. We have to move beyond the farm & the theme park. And while they may well go overseas at some point to continue & extend their studies – & in fact I think this is a really Good Thing – we really really need them to come back to New Zealand and continue their careers here. And – if we have a system in place that sees this happening; that recognises, encourages, & rewards studying in the sciences & in technology; that sees rising levels of science literacy across the board – then everyone’s a winner.