UCF is hosting more than 5,000 middle and high students today and tomorrow for the 30th annual Science Olympiad National Tournament.

The tournament brings together some of the nation’s brightest students who will showcase their talents in the areas of physics, robotics, epidemiology, astronomy, chemistry, biology and engineering.

The 120 teams, which beat out more than 6,000 other teams to get here, are excited about science and want to make a difference in the world. That’s why the University of Central Florida decided to host the tournament again this year. In 2012, university leaders watched as finalists demonstrated their talent and passion when UCF hosted the national tournament. Science Olympiad complements UCF’s commitment to encouraging students to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, also known as STEM.

UCF is home to several programs that encourage first- and second-year college students to explore STEM careers such as the EXCEL and the PRIME STEM Project .

Science Olympiad participants who earn a gold ranking in the high school division during this year’s tournament will receive a $30,000 scholarship if they choose to attend UCF.

Many of the teens who have participated in the competition in the past have gone onto become scientists and engineers making a difference in the world. They work at places such as Google, the Salk Institute, the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab, engineering firms around the world and in the U.S. Armed Forces.

“Science Olympiad brought other kids like me together to further enjoy and explore science, which you just can’t get in school alone,” said Paul Shinn a researcher and DNA sequencing coordinator at the Salk Institute. He competed in Science Olympiad from 1987-1989. His team at the institute was recognized in the early 2000s for his work on sequencing the first flowering plant.  He remembers his competitions days with great fondness. “It gave me and many of my friends a creative outlet to show off our talents at being little MacGuyvers rather than little Dennis the Menaces that only took apart toasters.”

Winter Park native Aaron Wertz participated in Science Olympiad in the 1990s when he attended middle school and he continued to compete until he graduated from Winter Park High School.

Wertz went onto the University of Florida and this past summer interned with Space X in California, where he worked as a propulsion analyst on the Dragon space capsule. The capsule is used to transport cargo to the International Space Station. Wertz graduates this month from UF with bachelor’s degrees in aerospace and mechanical engineering and already has a full-time job lined up with GE Aviation in Ohio. He’ll be on a team designing the next generation of jet engines while pursuing a master’s degree in aerospace propulsion engineering.

Wertz credits Science Olympiad with lighting his passion for science and engineering.

“It kept me intrigued as a kid,” he said. “I was able to mess around in the garage and build something, which operated on basic scientific principles- exploring the science on my own; back then I didn’t even realize it was science.”

He said Science Olympiad has played an important role in determining his professional future.

“My fondest memory of Science Olympiad was building and launching water rockets made of 2-liter soda bottles,” he said. “I just remember the joy I’d get from flying something I built- watching it rocket off the ground and into the air. Funny to think 10 years ago I was launching homemade water rockets and now I’ll be designing real ones.”

That’s music to organizers’ ears and that’s why they keep sponsoring the event.

This year’s finalists come from all 50 states. Teams from the Orlando Science Charter Middle School, the Archimedean Middle Conservatory School in Miami, Boca Raton Community High School and the Archimedean Upper Conservatory School in Miami will represent Florida.

The competition runs from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily at various locations on the main campus. And many of the competition’s sponsors are planning some hands-on surprises. For example, the U.S. Air Force will bring a flight simulator to the competition for students to tinker with during their free time.

For more information visit http://soinc.org/.

To hear about Science Olympiad in competitors’ own words, click here:

Science Olympiad is a Chicago-area-based national nonprofit organization founded in 1984. It is dedicated to improving the quality of K-12 STEM education, increasing student interest in science, creating a technologically literate workforce and providing recognition for outstanding achievement by both students and teachers. Nearly 200,000 students on 7,000 teams from all 50 states competed in 380 regional, state and national Science Olympiad tournaments last year.