Twenty teams from Southern California high schools plowed through a gauntlet of complex math and science questions in the regional round of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Science Bowl on March 20, 2020. The team from University High School in Irvine, California, won first place for the fourth year in a row at the tournament, which has been hosted by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California for almost three decades. Fullerton’s Troy High School took second, and Santa Monica High School placed third.
“This was the first year the competition was held virtually, of course, and while that required some adjusting for one and all, there was still fun to be had,” said JPL Public Services Manager Kim Lievense, who’s been coordinating the regional event at the Lab since 1993.
“During the preliminaries, we weren’t performing as well as we wanted to,” said senior Nicholas Ouyang, team captain for University High School. “And during the final rounds, you don’t how the other teams are doing, so it’s really high stress. But learning about science and working with others who also love science is really fun.”
Topics range from biology to chemistry to Earth science and beyond. Here’s a sample bonus question from years past: “If the flower color red is dominant and white is recessive, what will be the expected phenotypic ratio of red to white flowers in the first generation of a cross between parent plants both heterozygous for flower color?”
For University High coach David Knight, seeing how the team responded to the new format was impressive: “They did a great job, especially with the teamwork. There wasn’t one person who was just dominating.”
Senior Willow Huang, a Troy High co-captain, even found one possible advantage to preparing virtually with her team: “I think we practiced even longer this year because we weren’t constrained by lunch period. Practicing, even remotely, wasn’t too different from before.”
Now in her eighth year as a volunteer supporting the competition, April Jewell, a microdevices engineer at JPL, served as moderator. “The volunteers do a lot of training to get ready for the big day with mock competitions and making sure we all understand the rules,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, but watching these extremely bright kids in action and knowing that they are having a positive experience make it worth the time.”
The next stop for University High: the national competition, held virtually in April.