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California, N.C. students take top two places in national science competition

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Monday, April 29, 2013, at 5:28 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Sep. 27, 2013, at 5:21 p.m.

— After 24 questions in the final round on Monday, two schools were neck-and-neck for the top high school prize in the National Science Bowl.

They were from opposite sides of the country: Mira Loma High School in Sacramento, Calif., and North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, N.C. And they’d been texting “good luck” messages back and forth before their final competition.

When it came to the final round of questions, senior Tejas Sundaresan of North Carolina said he texted the captain of Mira Loma’s team, Saaket Agrawal, also a senior: “Let’s make this the most epic final match ever.”

And it was, Sundaresan said.

“It came down to the final question of the championship match,” Sundaresan said. “Overall, we’re really happy.”

The winning question asked which damaged cranial nerve would result in a list of specific symptoms, including paralysis of the facial muscle and an inability to wrinkle the forehead. Answer? The eleventh cranial nerve.

Mira Loma answered correctly, taking first place.

It was the culmination of an annual contest in Washington, sponsored by the Department of Energy, which challenges middle school and high school students with questions on subjects including organic chemistry, biology and physics for a shot at winning the competition’s check prizes and all-expenses-paid science trips.

Mira Loma won an all-expenses-paid, nine-day trip to Alaska, where team members will investigate science issues, including glacier formation and plate tectonics.

The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics won a free five-day trip to natural environments including Great Salt Lake Park, Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park, where students will hike on the Continental Divide and explore geysers and canyon formations.

The National Science Bowl’s high school competition began in 1991 and expanded to include a middle school division in 1996. Jan Tyler, the National Science Bowl coordinator, said the Department of Energy’s goal in sponsoring the annual competition is to foster an excitement for science in students and to help solidify science as a career path for them.

The top 16 high school teams and the top eight middle school teams received $1,000, and the winners of high school divisions and of the middle school car challenge won $500 – all money designated for their schools’ science departments.

The competition featured the top 69 high schools and 46 middle schools that won regional competitions earlier in the year. At the beginning of the weekend-long competition, the schools were grouped into divisions for the competitions and then played one another in a round-robin tournament. The top two teams of each division then went into a double-elimination session.

The middle school teams competed in a Model Car Challenge to race model cars that held a Morton Salt container and tested engineering skills and creativity.

Mira Loma had to beat the North Carolina high school two times in the double elimination rounds to win. The school has been to the competition 17 times and has placed in the top three for the past six years.

Agrawal, a senior at Mira Loma High School and the team’s captain, said that the team played better in the first round than in the second, which is why the competition came down to a nail-biter. He said the questions worked well for the team and what the students knew.

Siddharth Trehan, also a senior at the school, said that overcoming psychological factors is a tricky part of the game.

“You have to go in with the attitude, ‘We can win this,’” he said.

North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics Chancellor Todd Roberts said the students on the team are well-rounded in many areas of math and science. They’ve also performed strongly in major research competitions and other academic competitions. The school took first place in the competition in 2008 and 2010.

Sundaresan said his favorite part of the competition was meeting so many students who were passionate about science.

He said that there was a diverse range of science questions that required drawing from knowledge learned as early as elementary school.

“We weren’t expecting to do so well as second,” he said. “It’s been a goal for all of us for years and years.”

A team from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Ky., was competing in its first-ever National Science Bowl and placed ninth overall, winning $1,000 for its school’s science department.

Coach Susan Magedanz, a special education teacher at Dunbar, said the team performed strongly against other schools, some of which are magnet math and science high schools and have attended the bowl for many years.

The students learned much of the material on their own and were self-motivated throughout the competition, Magedanz said.

“They just do it because they love to do it,” she said.

A team from Hanford High School in Richland, Wash., competed but didn’t do as well as it thought it would, said Brian Palmer, coach of the team and science teacher at the school. He said the members were still lucky to compete and were among the top 4 percent of science bowl competitors in the country.

“We’re thrilled to have made it this far,” he said.

A team from Treasure Valley Math and Science Center in Boise, Idaho, had both a middle school team and a high school team competing. Its middle school won fourth place in the academic competition and second place in the model car competition.

The high school team did not make it into the double elimination round but had a very young team and said it was proud of the middle schoolers.

The middle school members sported two pins on Monday: one in the shape of the state of Idaho and another that was a potato, to represent the state while in Washington.

“It’s a great opportunity for people to compete with a lot of different people from all the different states,” said Aditya Shekar, an eighth-grader.

A team from Paschal High School in Fort Worth, Texas, agreed that the competition was fun, even though the team didn’t make it into the final 16 schools.

Erik Nguyen, a senior, said there were some questions that were extremely challenging.

“Organic chemistry – that’s what got everyone,” he said.

Edward Nguyen, a sophomore, said he loved that the competition brought together science-loving students from all across the country.

Contact: braghavendran@mcclatchydc.com

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