Southern California high school students had mere seconds to answer complex science questions that would rattle even the most stalwart rocket scientist in the regional round of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Science Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26.
The team from University High School in Irvine, California, won first place for the third year in a row at the tournament, which has been hosted by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, for almost three decades. They’ll advance to the national competition, held in Washington from April 30 to May 4.
Twenty-three teams competed in this year’s competition, which has become so popular that schools are chosen via a lottery system.
John Callas, project manager for the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers and manager of the NASA-NSF Exoplanet Observational Research program, has volunteered as a Science Bowl moderator for 26 years. “I’m still impressed with how quickly these young minds can answer a very complicated question. A question that I, today, would have to take out a piece of paper and spend maybe five minutes on doing the calculation, they do within seconds in their heads,” he said. Needless to say, calculators aren’t allowed.
One example of a past tournament’s “easy” questions reads: “A famous principle of fluid mechanics, traditionally attributed as the explanation behind lift on an airplane wing, is named after what scientist?”
Despite the serious brainwork required, the atmosphere was fun and energetic, with even a milk-and-cookie break in the afternoon.
“I love learning science with other people. I love competing, and I think Science Bowl is one of the best competitions out there,” said senior Nyle Wong, captain of University High School’s winning team. “We feel really good — we worked really hard for this.”
In between the round-robin and double-elimination rounds, Callas explained astrophysics and Mars exploration and students went to see the Mars 2020 rover in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility. Some former Science Bowl participants have gone on to work at JPL or Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA.
“These kids are so smart, and it just reminds you that this is the next generation. And if we can help them get to JPL, a lot of them will come work here, which is great. We just try to give back to the community as much as we can,” said Nancy Kapell, a JPL human resources specialist who has volunteered for the Science Bowl for 17 years.
While students may be preparing for careers in STEM, some of them do it purely for the love of science.
Sophomore Alissa Kopylova — one of University High’s younger team members —dedicated her summer and free time to studying in order to make the team. “I feel like I got interested in biology when I first came to school, and I felt like it was a great way to expand my ability in this area. And also, the subject interests me to a point where I was willing to do something fun,” she said.
Silver medals for second place were given to Santa Monica High School and bronze medals for third place went to Troy High School in Fullerton. Culver City High School won for best sportsmanship.