Olathe & Southwest Joco

Blue Valley West team heads to nationals of Science Knowledge Bowl

If there’s something in the water at Blue Valley West that makes students succeed in science, the school’s Science Knowledge Bowl team could probably tell you what it was. After all, they’ve qualified to go to nationals.

Juniors Chandler Conn, Shyam Narayanan, Gavin Zhu and Carter Stout, along with senior Mykell Ma, will head to Washington, D.C., with coach Fern Bretch to compete in the National Science Bowl April 24-28.

Last year, Blue Valley West also earned a spot in the national competition. Gavin and Shyam were there and helped the team win four of its eight matches in a round robin bracket. Teams that make it to the next set of rounds after the round robin face a double elimination bracket before the final match.

This year, “our goal is to win even more rounds,” Shyam said.

As a team, they’re dealing with some of their weak spots before it’s time to head off to nationals in April.

“Last year, we almost did really well,” Gavin said. “We were winning so many rounds by halftime, and so many rounds would go to the very last question. It was almost heartbreaking.”

Each team member knows particular subjects well — Gavin and Shyam tend to dominate math and biology, while Chandler handles most of the physics. Mykell is stepping in to fix one of their major weak spots — earth and space science.

“After the regional competition, I was like, ‘We should probably work on earth science.’ So, I got a geology textbook,” Mykell said.

Another category the team needs to work on is energy. The competition is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, so even though it’s not a topic taught much in high school, the competitors still have to know it. That means extra study time reading journal articles and other sources.

An energy question might be, “What type of coal burns the hardest?” or “What is not a way to reduce energy consumption of your dryer?” Questions like the latter come with multiple choice answers.

When they give choices in this oral competition, they’re not labeled a, b, c or d.

“B, c and d all sound similar… so it’s just easier to use w, x, y and z,” Gavin said. “It’s kind of hard to get used to.”

Sometimes, there’s a bit of serendipity to the questions.

If you’re not on a top science team, being asked, “Which of the following elements is most likely to disobey the octet rule?” might make you run for the hills trying to forget science tests of the past.

However, this question from the regional competition made the Blue Valley West team smile, hit the buzzer and answer, “Boron.”

“It was a question that literally seemed like it was pulled from a test we had taken a week before (in AP chemistry class),” Chandler said.

Sometimes the students even surprise themselves with how much they know.

“It’s kind of crazy just to get up there when they’re asking these questions that you know some of them,” Chandler said. “(It’s amazing) to see how much progress you’ve made since a couple of years ago, when you would listen and not understand what the words they’re talking about.”

Their coach, Blue Valley West science teacher Fern Bretch, says the competition is a different way to process scientific knowledge.

“You’ve got all this stuff in your head that you don’t even know that you know,” she said. “Then all of the sudden, you’re blurting out these answers, and you’re thinking, ‘Where did that come from?’ ”

The trip isn’t just about the actual competition.

“A lot of it is leisure time, and they would take us places to learn about science,” Gavin said.

The timing of nationals can be difficult, because the team members have to miss several days of school just before Advanced Placement tests start, but Gavin’s not worried.

“We’re smart kids. We can handle it,” he said.