Meet Lisa Giacomelli, New Executive Director of the N.C. Science Olympiad
This fall, Lisa Giacomelli became the new executive director of the North Carolina Science Olympiad, which is part of The Science House at NC State and is one of the largest Science Olympiad programs in the nation. As part of the program, middle and high-school students compete in rigorous interscholastic competitions with activities that are balanced between various scientific disciplines.
Giacomelli comes to NC State from the Wilmington Academy of Arts and Sciences, where she was the Olympiad coach and head science teacher for nine years. She shared some plans for her new position.
Tell us about your work as a Science Olympiad coach in Wilmington.
I started the first team at the Wilmington Academy of Arts and Sciences. We were small but mighty — about 80 students total in grades 4-8. I was clueless my first year but enthusiastic. I recruited equally clueless enthusiastic kids, went to the first regional tournament where we did fairly well and moved on to the state tournament. We ended up going to state every year, and expanded our program to a varsity, JV, elementary team. In 2019 we advanced to national level. We went to Cornell for nationals, and worked through COVID. We went to nationals again for the second time. I’ve left the team in a good place and I’m really proud of that school and what I was able to achieve in 10 years.
Your team was one of the most competitive in tournaments. What were some specific things that gave you that edge?
I can’t necessarily attribute it to a specific thing, because we were actually at a disadvantage being such a small school. But I worked to cultivate a mindset. We might not be the biggest, baddest school at these tournaments, but you can be the hardest worker in the room. I always challenged my students to try harder. So I emphasized work ethic and confidence instead of winning medals.
Why were you interested in the Olympiad executive director position at NC State?
I thought this was an excellent opportunity to make an impact. I could reach more kids across the state.
As executive director of the Science Olympiad, what are some plans that you have for the program?
My predecessor, Kim Gervase, and her team left the program in a phenomenal place. My goal is to keep that and take us to whatever the next level looks like. That means expanding our reach and making the program accessible to as many kids as possible.
What do you like most about science?
Science is my world! I love that you never truly know everything. It’s always evolving and that makes it really exciting — even if it’s unpredictable. And I also love that there’s so much failure involved in science. And the thing is we often learn more from failures than successes. And the scientific process is like that, but seeking out those failed experiences gets us closer to learning. I try to teach my students that too, and it helps build their characters.
What advice would you give to students interested in the science field?
Never underestimate yourself. Science is for you, science is for everyone. A lot of kids think it’s hard, that it’s only for the smart kids. But I advise you to put yourself out there and try it. And the Science Olympiad reinforces that, there’s a lot of programs and skills that can be put to use.
An example: As a coach, at an ornithology event, I ended up assigning two students that I thought were best for this event, and although they were resistant they loved it in the long run. They would visit bird sanctuaries in their free time, and would watch birds in the classroom, all so they could expand their bird identification list. And it ended up turning into a passion for them.
How did you get into science?
I was always inquisitive. I remember lying in my parents bed at night asking all sorts of questions about how things work. I had a natural desire to learn and better understand what was happening around me.
What do you look forward to the most about this new position?
First of all I’m so excited! I’m excited about going to the tournaments and seeing kids in their element, watching them solve problems and troubleshooting. I always enjoy that as a coach, and I’m going to get to do that even more so now. And even in the moments where things may not go as planned, I can use that to help them grow. I’m just excited about the impact of the program on kids. So seeing that and hearing the stories about how the Science Olympiad has influenced them or changed their lives — I can’t think of anything more fulfilling than that.
What is a challenge that the Science Olympiad faces?
It is in and of itself a challenge, but that is also part of what I’ve always loved about. It keeps you on your toes, whether you’re a student or a coach or a volunteer or director. It challenges you day to day. You can have the best laid plan and you still might get something unexpected. It forces you outside your comfort zone. It’s ultimately making us better people. I embrace those challenges.
How will you get more students interested in the Science Olympiad program?
Give them as many opportunities as possible to try it. Make it accessible, manageable. And try to get them out in our communities statewide. And to keep in mind that even though it can be a lot of work, it’s still fun! The memories, the teamwork. And engaging kids on their level. You can do that really well with social media. And just getting them to try it, and that little taste of success that builds their confidence, that’s what keeps them coming back.