‘Weed Olympics’ put science students’ skills and knowledge to the test

After a two year hiatus, science students from universities in Canada and the US put their skills and knowledge to the test at this year’s “Weed Olympics”.

It’s not the kind of sport where players play on a court. Students here were out in the field problem solving and identifying different weeds, as well as different herbicides commonly used in the agriculture industry.

It was part of the Northeastern Collegiate Weed Science Contest, which gave students an opportunity to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and use it in the field.

“It’s as close as possible to real life situations, where you interact with farmers and livelihood depends on it, so it’s the real thing,” said Francois Tardiff, a weed scientist and head coach of the University of Guelph (U of G) team. , the only Canadian university who took part in the competition.

Francois Tardiff is a weed scientist and the head coach for the University of Guelph team. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Tardiff said this year, because of the two year break, most of the students who took part in Wednesday’s event did it for the first time.

“It’s fantastic to be back and see the passion of the students, it really gives us energy,” he said.

The competition is typically a full day event with an early 7 am start. Teams rotated through different scenarios and were scored individually for most of the competition.

The farmer’s problem challenge is considered one of the most intimidating events of the competition, but one that Erica Nelson was looking forward to the most.

A group of people wearing yellow shirts stand in the middle of a crop field on a cloudy day.
There are four main events that take part in the “Weed Olympics” including this scenario, where students have to figure out and solve a farmer’s problem. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

“It’s the one that people who have done it in the past talk about the most and it pulls from all of the different kind of categories too,” said Nelson, a member of the U of G team, who took part in the event for the first time.

A farmer presents a problem to the student and it’s their job to figure out the cause and a solution.

“It’s basically solving a problem like you would in the real world,” said Lizzy Fitzgerald, a first time competitor and member of the Cornell University team.

Her team was among several American universities that traveled north to be part of the competition.

“It’s like a puzzle where you ask a bunch of questions to try and solve the problem,” she added.

The final activity of the day required students to work together as a team to assemble a herbicide sprayer. Teams were scored on teamwork, speed and accuracy.

U of G’s undergraduate and individual graduate teams took second and third in their categories.

Michael Lovier, Rebecca Stup, Lizzy Fitzgerald and Megan Wittmeyer are members of the Cornell University team in the US competing for the first time. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Training is a big part of the competition

Like the Olympics, training is a major part of preparing for the competition. Students at U of G started prepping since April, meeting every other week and then weekly as the competition drew closer.

“We go through the different aspects of the competition, so weed identification, herbicide symptomology, problem solving, sprayer technology … and they work through different materials just to get ready,” Tardiff said.

The last time the competition was held in Canada was back in 2000. Volunteers and organizers for this year’s event — many who were past Weed Olympic competitors — put in hundreds of hours to prepare the field, while making sure events were unique and challenging.

Doug Baumann is a crop protection development manager at Syngentas Honeywood Research Facility in Plattsvile, Ont., where the competition was held. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

“We have folks who have put in over 500 hours of volunteer time to create the fields that you see and it’s taken a month and a half of steady work in the field to make sure when the students come, it’s ready for them,” he said. Doug Baumann, crop protection development manager at Syngentas Honeywood Research Facility, where the competition was held.

For many of the students, the competition went beyond putting their skills to the test. It’s also about networking and building relationships with colleagues.

One of the events at the “Weed Olympics” requires students to identify what kind of herbicide was used on different weeds. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

“The biggest thing for me is networking. I have a lot of friends who are volunteering right now and it’s nice to reconnect and see friendly faces,” said Justin McNally with the U of G team.

Team member Isaac Clutterbuck agrees.

“The overall experience and the networking side is always important,” he said. “A lot of this stuff, we’re going to need to know. It’s very useful to get into the industry.”

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