Overland Park & Leawood

April 30, 2013

In the science bowl, the answers are lightning fast

Blue Valley West High School team competes in the national contest in D.C.

Biology, chemistry and physics may be routine classes in high school, but not every science student could answer lightning-fast questions about them.

For the students of Blue Valley West High School’s science bowl team, it’s a routine reflex. Last weekend, they traveled to the National Science Bowl in Washington, D.C., to pit their knowledge against the rest of the nation. The team came in fourth in its division and won the division team challenge.

“You have to be quick on the buzzer, which makes it fun,” said sophomore Shyam Narayanan, who also went to the national competition last year.

To get to nationals, the Blue Valley West team won the regional science bowl at Rockhurst University in Kansas City.

The Department of Energy sponsors the national competition, and local Department of Energy contractors help sponsor the programs in their area. This year’s regional competition was sponsored by Honeywell and the local office of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

“It brings the best and brightest of our kids here locally to compete against each other in an important process,” said Mark Holecek, site leader for Kansas City’s National Nuclear Security Administration branch. “The kids were very, very competitive … but there was also a camaraderie of different schools getting together to talk about different aspects of what they do.”

The format of the science bowl is similar to a quiz show. The five team members sit in front of buzzers, as does the competing team, while a moderator reads out questions. The questions can be on biology, chemistry, physics, math, earth science, astronomy or general science, and the moderator announces the topic before each question.

“I like biology, chemistry and physics — it’s just applying my passion for science. … The first couple of rounds (at regionals) were a little bit nerve-wracking, but I got over it,” said senior Tim Tadros.

The team members know each other’s specialties and answer questions accordingly.

“If they say it’s math, physics or chemistry, I’m usually ready and alert,” said Shyam. “If it’s earth, space or energy question I sit back” and let someone else answer.

For each topic, there’s a toss-up question, where a team member must buzz in and answer correctly before the other team. If the student gets it right, that team gets a bonus question. They’re only allowed to confer with each other for the bonus one.

“I like collaborating. Maybe you don’t know (the answer), but you can put your knowledge together and figure something out,” said Tim.

Both Tim and Shyam take advanced placement physics and chemistry classes. They and the other team members meet every week to study and practice for the science bowl.

“It’s a way of putting competition into an academic situation,” said Fern Bretch, the team’s coach and a science teacher at Blue Valley West.

Their only competitions all year are the regional and nationals ones, but a lot of work goes into preparing for those days, and it’s more than just acing tests in chemistry class.

“You can get an A in all your science classes, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to win,” said Shyam.

When the team goes through sample questions at practices, they don’t just get the answers and move on to the next problem.

“We talk about how and why you knew the answer,” Bretch said.

In addition to the practice questions and their regular science schoolwork, Bretch encourages the students to watch science programs on TV, such as Nova.

Although the science bowl team members are truly interested in science — Tim will attend Dartmouth College next year to study physics — science bowl isn’t all about studying.

“I knew more than half of the people at regionals, and it was just great hanging out with them and talking with them,” said Shyam.

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