Newswise — There was plenty of suspense and drama as middle school and high school students tested their knowledge and skills at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) New Jersey Regional Science Bowl on Feb. 19 and 20, hosted by the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, but this year it was all online as the contest went fully virtual for the first time.

In the high school contest, long-time rival high schools from the same school system, West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North and West Windsor-Plainsboro South were the final competitors with the North team emerging victorious to claim the right to advance to the virtual National Science Bowl® competition.

In the middle school contest, the Princeton Charter team will go the National Science Bowl for the fourth time in a row after defeating William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge, which came in second, followed by Highland Park Middle School, third place. The Noor-ul-Iman middle school team in Monmouth Junction received the Spirit Prize for displaying the best team spirit and sportsmanship. In the high school contest, West Windsor-Plainsboro South came in second and The Princeton International School for Math and Science came in third.

Andrew Zwicker, PPPL’s head of Communications and Public Outreach, congratulated students and coaches for participating in the contest. “In this craziest of years where learning is just so challenging, you were willing to be with us and go on this adventure just like you’re doing with your classes,” said Zwicker, who served as master of ceremonies and volunteered as a moderator and timer at both contests, before the middle school event. “I want to say thank you to all the teams regardless of where you end up.”

Deedee Ortiz, the Science Education program manager who organized the event along with the DOE’s National Science Bowl Team in Washington, D.C., said the Science Bowl was a success despite the challenges. “The students and coaches worked hard to prepare and it showed by their outstanding performance during the competition,” she said. “They did not let these obstacles deter them from showing off what they love, which is science. We are all so proud of them!”

Students said the competition, not the venue, made the effort worthwhile.” “I really enjoyed it,”  said Nitza, an eighth grader who is a member of the Princeton Charter School team. “It’s something I missed because of COVID … I really enjoy competition, so it was fun.”

“I’m really glad we still have Science Bowl and they found a way to make it virtual,” said Suraj, a member of the West Windsor-Plainsboro South team. “I would have missed it if they didn’t have it.”

A large contingent of volunteers

The DOE Science Bowl team has been training and prepping for the event for the past several months and volunteers came from national laboratories, universities, and companies from all over the country. PPPL had the largest contingent of volunteers, with Steve Cowley, PPPL director, joining about 24 PPPL’ers and 24 others from national laboratories, universities, and companies to help out at the high school contest.

George Wilkie, a physicist at PPPL, volunteered for the first time for the high school contest.  “It’s fun,” he said. “These kids are really impressive.” “These kids are amazingly bright students,” agreed Pamela Serai, an administrator in Advanced Projects & ITER Projects, another first-time volunteer.

Unlike previous years in which students buzzed in to answer questions in a head-to-head double-elimination contest, students in the online contest competed against each other separately in their own virtual breakout rooms. The students and coaches sat at their computers for the competition with one camera on their faces and another device showing their work-stations. They were permitted to discuss their answers with 11 middle school teams answering 15 toss-up questions each plus bonus questions and the 32 high school teams answering 18 questions and additional bonus questions. With no scoreboard, the teams did not even know the winner until a brief ceremony after the contests had finished.

The virtual contest was a first for PPPL. The 2020 New Jersey Regional Science Bowl last year was one of the last public events before the Laboratory curtailed on-site operations in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year’s National Science Bowl was an online competition in June, replacing the in-person contest originally scheduled for May. Princeton Charter School, this year’s winner, made it to the final 16 rounds last year.

National contest in April and May

The winning teams this year will compete in the virtual National Science Bowl preliminary rounds in April, with the top 32 winning middle school and high school teams moving on to virtual elimination tournaments in May 

With many students attending school from home or a hybrid of at-home and in-school classes, coaches and students said the Science Bowl gave them a sense of normalcy. “So many things are different this year,” said Laura Celik, the Princeton Charter School coach (who also volunteered at the high school contest). “But at least we can do Science  Bowl.” 

Patricia Hillyer, the Matawan-Aberdeen Middle School coach, said she has been teaching from home all year and has never met her students in person. But coaching the Science Bowl team was another way to connect. She added that the virtual format was less pressure on students. “I like that they’re able to talk it out and it becomes more of a team effort,” she said.

West Windsor-Plainsboro High School-South coach Karel Marshall said she was happy her team got to participate. “I’m really proud of their performance and we’re really very thankful to the National Science Bowl that they were able to compete,” she said. “Everything was very smooth so we really appreciate it.”

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which  is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit energy.gov/science.

 

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