Teams of middle and high school students from Princeton and across the state took part in the U.S. Department of Energy’s New Jersey Regional Science Bowl on Friday and Saturday at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).
Thirty-two teams competed in a University Challenge-like competition, buzzing their answers against the clock.
On Friday, 16 middle school teams of four to five students participated. John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS) placed second and took home the “School Spirit Award” for staying on after they were knocked out to cheer on others. The J Droids of Warren, will go to the National Science Bowl finals in Washington D.C., in April.
On Saturday, 32 teams of 200 high school students competed. At around 1 p.m., Princeton High School took on Bergen County High School. But before the two teams faced-off against one another in what would be a fast-paced, question and answer format, testing their ability to solve mathematical problems as well as their knowledge in the categories of earth science, energy, general science, mathematics, physics and life science, they first had to check their buzzers.
The round began with multiple choice questions. In a nod to the techno, the choices were listed not as the usual A B, C, or D, but as W, X, Y, or Z.
For those too quick on the buzzer a penalty gave points to opposition, but only for a wrong answer. So there was an incentive to buzz quickly if you were sure of the answer and a disincentive if you were not entirely sure. Such judgment on the part of the players is what differentiates winners and losers.
Questions ranged from the understandable to the mathematical. An example of the former is “Which of the following is a deciduous conifer: Norfolk Pine, Western Hemlock, Southern American Larch, or White Cedar?” An example of the latter is: “Solve for x: 27 to the power of 6-x equals 9 to the power of x-1.” Algebra to some, Aaargh to others. A correct answer to a multiple choice question earned a bonus knowledge question.
In spite of the fast pace, the atmosphere in the PPPL auditorium was relaxed, even festive, with student participants at ease with the competitive environment. What at first sight seemed a recipe for stress, turned out to be high schoolers enjoying themselves. They were having fun with sometimes mystifying questions.
As the PHS team score advanced from 8-0, 8-8, 40-32, 94-68 and finally 112-68, there was a degree of mounting tension, but mostly there was fun. On several occasions Bergen County HS gained four penalty points because of interrupts by members of the Princeton team.
PHS Coach Tim Anderson, who teaches Advancement Placement (AP) environmental science, as well as astronomy and oceanography, was astonished when his team faltered on one oceanography question. “They should have gotten that one,” he said.
Mr. Anderson reported his pride in their performance overall. He has reason to be happy since PHS students taking part in last week’s “Shore Bowl,” the regional competition of the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, held at the Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Science, triumphed and will move on to compete with other regional champions in May.
Of the local teams at the PPPL on Saturday, PHS went the furthest before their defeat in the 10th round. In the final 13th round the winner was State College, Pa., which receives all-expenses-paid trips to Washington, D.C. to compete in the finals.
Besides JWMS, a team from the Princeton Charter School also competed at the middle school level. Other high schools competing were Princeton Day School, Trenton Catholic Academy, East Brunswick High School, The Lawrenceville School, Montgomery High School, Lawrence High School, Stuart Country Day School, West Windsor Plainsboro North, West Windsor-Plainsboro South, and South Brunswick High School.
Now in its 24th year, the National Science Bowl is one of the nation’s largest science competitions. It aims to support interest in science and mathematics and more than 225,000 students have participated in the annual event since it began. This year, it was expected to draw about 9,000 high school and about 5,000 middle school students from across the nation.