Science students excel in Italy

MODENA, ITALY — When members of Team U.S.A. returned on Sept. 16 from the fifth annual International Earth Science Olympiad in Modena, Italy, they brought home more medals than the Americans had previously won in the competition’s history.
Led by Mount Abraham Union High School physics teacher Tom Tailer and his wife, Beth, the team grabbed three bronze medals. Prior to this year, the U.S. team had only won one silver and one bronze medal in four years of competing in the national-team contests.
Leading the pack on the U.S. team was Mount Abe senior Kenny Micklas of Lincoln, who achieved the highest score of the bronze medalists.
Ironically, Micklas almost had to miss the Olympiad. Without federal funding that previously helped U.S. students attend the event, and with Micklas’ family facing tough financial times, he and Tailer turned to their community, friends and school for support. After weeks of fund-raising and numerous donations made to help Micklas pay for the trip, they reached their fund-raising goal just two days before the team was due to leave for Italy.
“I’d like to thank all of the people who helped me go to the Olympiad — family and friends and especially Mount Abe staff and the Tailers, who organized the trip for the United States,” said Micklas.
 On Sept. 4, the team left for Italy, where they met up with 25 teams from around the world. After the opening ceremony in Modena, the students visited one of the world’s largest mud volcanoes in Mirano.
“It’s the only volcano (in the world) that erupts fossils,” said Tailer.
The next day, the students conducted ocean experiments in the lagoon outside Venice. Unfortunately, due to some hang-ups, they weren’t able to step foot in Venice itself, which Tailer described as a waning piece of history that will vanish from the world in the next century.
“It’s sunken so much that the sea level is now up into the brick,” he said. “So the buildings of Venice are just eroding … and that’s not something that can be salvaged.” 
The national team competition began on day four. High schoolers from around the world faced such problems as identifying different stones from ancient Roman monuments and completing a four-hour written test that delved into the four spheres of earth science: the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and astronomy.
Another element of the Olympiad drew from a 15-meter-long, four-inch diameter core sample from the middle of Modena.
“In that core sample, you could see the collapse of the roman civilization because there were brick fragments and pottery fragments and some wood ash and that was when the barbarians came in and burned and looted. And then the city was covered with floods and layers of silt,” said Tailer.
“It was pretty amazing how you could see the progression through the different time periods so clearly laid out along the column,” said Micklas.
After the national team competition had run its course, the students split into seven international teams to conduct fieldwork about real issues in the Valle d’Aosta.
“The Valle is this incredible glacial, U-shaped valley with Mont Blanc at one end … and it’s (home to) the headwater for the Po River Valley,” said Tailer. “There were Roman ruins … and this incredible network of medieval castles, and we had the international team presentations in this castle that was used during the Napoleonic Wars.”
In the international team portion of the Olympiad Micklas’ team won the award for best cooperation.
“My team was looking at an aquifer in the valley, and we had to determine how much water there was and how long it would last,” said Micklas, who explained that this task was difficult due to insufficient data.
But this aquifer is crucial to the future of civilization in the valley, explained Tailer.
“When the glacier melts that aquifer is going to be it for getting water in that valley,” he said. “Now, there’s almost continuous water flow coming off the glacier. “
The manner in which the valley was developed, however, didn’t really take the downward flow of the aquifer into account.
“On top of the aquifer, they built several things that they probably shouldn’t have put there,” Tailer said.
“There was a sewage treatment plant, a dump and an airport,” Micklas added. “They were all near the top of the valley, and everything flows down from there, which is kind of a problem.”
While Micklas and his team explored issues relating to the aquifer, other teams worked on projects like mapping glacial recession in the valley over the past two centuries and exploring the financial and environmental feasibility of reopening a copper mine abandoned by the Romans.     
The Olympiad wrapped up on Sept. 14 with some speeches given by a group of world-renowned scientists and a videoconference with a class of Japanese students.
Looking toward next year’s competition in Argentina, Tailer wants to extend the duration of the international team portion of the event and create better standards for it, as well. And he’s already beginning to gear up for when Vermont hosts the Olympiad on behalf of the U.S. in 2014; a location that Tailer said couldn’t be better for this international event.
“Vermont is one of the world leaders in sustainability for both food and energy,” he said.  “Vermonters have a much higher environmental literacy than most people on the planet, and it’s my hope to use the event in 2014 as an educational tool for Vermont as well as the rest of the world.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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