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Two MUHS students compete in India

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Union High School seniors Sophie McKeever-Parkes and Kate DaPolito took a break from classes last month to do some traveling. But it’s not like they were on vacation; they were pitting their academic skills against fellow students from 28 countries at a spot almost halfway around the world.
The two young women returned on Sept. 19 from a nine-day trip to Mysore, India, where they competed in the 7th International Earth Science Olympiad (IESO). Sponsored by the International Geoscience Education Organization, it’s a competition in which students from throughout the world fielded questions in such disciplines as geology, meteorology, environmental science and astronomy. McKeever-Parkes and DaPolito were among five Vermonters who helped represent the eight-person Team U.S.A. during a sojourn in which the students were exposed to Indian culture and were able to make new friendships spanning the globe.
“I learned a lot about earth science,” a beaming McKeever-Parkes, a Salisbury resident, said of her experience. “This (trip) has sparked my passion to help save the Earth.”
The two students and their moms — who helped chaperone the trip — left for India on Sept. 11. It was a long plane trip, taking them from Burlington to New York and Qatar and finally Bangalore, India. From there, they took a 140-km bus ride to Mysore, the site of the competition.
McKeever-Parkes and DaPolito, a Weybridge resident, entered the event with some strong credentials. Along with being very good students, they had both recently attended the Vermont Governor’s Institute on Engineering. They learned of the IESO at the institute and declared an interest in attending.
“We took a test, wrote an essay and were selected from that,” McKeever-Parkes said.
The U.S. students and their families paid their own way to India, though that wasn’t the case for all participants, some of whom were sponsored by their respective countries. And the stakes were high for some students, McKeever-Parkes noted.
“Some students were promised a full (college) scholarship if they won a gold medal,” she said. “Some of the students trained with a personal coach.”
It was no cakewalk of a competition, to be sure.
“There were some really difficult questions,” McKeever-Parkes said.
Some of the assigned tasks: Making a functioning sundial out of some very basic supplies; being handed a celestial map and asked to identify specific stars; identifying cloud types; and being asked to identify the origin of specific rocks and determine how they were formed.
“It was more difficult than I thought it would be,” DaPolito said of the questions.
And it didn’t help that Team U.S.A., which is mentored by Mount Abraham Union High School science teacher Tom Tailer and his wife Beth, was the only English-speaking team in the Olympiad. There were teamwork drills that presented a significant language barrier. Communication at times had to be accomplished through hand gestures.
Unfortunately, Team U.S.A. did not win any of the 10 gold medals awarded at this year’s Olympiad. One American student won a bronze. Still, McKeever-Parkes and DaPolito did quite well, considering they had not taken large blocks of earth science in school.
The visit wasn’t all work, however. The international group of students spent considerable time together traveling in southwest India, visiting Hindu temples, schools and a palace. They also got to see elephants.
DaPolito spoke of walking up to a temple on an overlook and enjoying a view of around 300 miles.
“It was beautiful,” she said.
Being in a bus on the roads in India was an adventure unto itself, according to McKeever-Parkes.
“There were no rules on the roads,” she said. “It was a little scary.”
Students were also exposed to the extreme poverty in which many Indians are living.
“It was a lot to deal with,” McKeever-Parkes said.
The two MUHS students, both members of the Tiger girls’ varsity soccer team, also got to share their love of soccer with some young Indian students. McKeever-Parkes and DaPolito passed out five soccer balls that the MUHS team had purchased to donate to Indian players.
DaPolito was very pleased to have participated in the competition.
“It was a very interesting experience,” she said. “The scenery was beautiful.”
DaPolito said her favorite part of the trip was interacting with the other students. Both young women struck up what they hope will be enduring friendships with people hailing from such countries as Israel, Romania, Germany and Spain.
“There are definitely some people I will stay in touch with,” DaPolito said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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