A team from Irvine, California’s University High School prevailed over teams from 19 other schools Saturday, Feb. 4, at the regional competition of the National Science Bowl, hosted for the 31st year by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. The victory marked a return to form for the school, which won four years straight until its streak was disrupted in a narrow loss at last year’s tournament.
More than 100 Southern California high schoolers competed in the tense, fast-paced academic challenge after months of preparation. Beyond feeling pride in his team’s return to glory following their 2022 loss, University High team captain Benjamin Fan, said he revelled in meeting so many “fellow science enthusiasts” at the event.
Fan also revealed the secret to their success: He and his teammates simulated the event during sessions when they practiced with a buzzer like the one Science Bowl competitors use to signal they’re ready to answer, “Jeopardy!”-style.
“What really sets us apart is we have dedicated practices in which we practice the buzzing as opposed to just coming together and studying,” Fan said. “Buzzing really puts us into the actual environment of the competition.”
The team also attended an invitational science competition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and participated in online scrimmages against other schools, said David Knight, a science teacher who’s in his 19th year coaching University High teams. Still, all that practice doesn’t lessen the “pressure-cooker” feeling in the moment, he added.
“My heart rate gets going. I’m glad I don’t have to compete, because I would probably throw up,” Knight told the assembled crowd at JPL’s Pickering Auditorium.
Teams are composed of four students and one alternate, plus a teacher who serves as coach. Schools from Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside counties competed at the event, which is so popular that teams are selected by lottery. Round-robin and double-elimination rounds led to final matches, where Troy High School in Fullerton earned second place and Santa Monica High placed third.
Students have mere seconds to answer difficult science and math questions, such as “What intermolecular force is responsible for the secondary structure of proteins?” and “What is the sum of the squares of the first 19 positive integers?” In the final rounds, students’ answers often provoked a quiet murmuring of appreciation from fellow competitors in the auditorium.
The event marked the first in-person regional competition at JPL since the COVID-19 pandemic began, although, as a precaution, no spectators were allowed. Dozens of volunteers from the Lab support the event, and many expressed gratitude for the return to face-to-face interaction, as did participants.
“It’s really good to be back,” said Thaddaeus Voss, a JPL telecommunications systems engineer who moderated the final round, reading out questions for University and Troy high schools.
Voss competed in Science Bowl as a high schooler in Ohio, then began volunteering at the JPL regional competition in graduate school at the University of Southern California. That experience – seeing the other volunteers’ passion – motivated him to apply for a job at JPL, he said.
“One of the reasons I decided to work at JPL was because I came and volunteered,” Voss said. “So it means a lot to me when they pick me to read and do the questions.”
Now, University will go on to compete against winners from dozens of other regional competitions across the country at a national tournament in Washington April 27 through May 3. The National Science Bowl is coordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy.