Preston Middle School, winner of the WAPA-hosted Colorado Regional Middle School Science Bowl, took their science acuity to the National Science Bowl on June 5 and emerged as the national middle school champions.
The National Science Bowl is an annual event held in Washington, D.C. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, 2020 saw instead the first virtual National Science Bowl in the event’s 30-year history.
The winners of regional events held across the country, a total of 61 high school teams and 41 middle school teams, squared off via teleconference to determine the winners of this unprecedented reimagining of the event.
Traditionally, the winning regional teams have enjoyed a trip to Washington, D.C., as part of their reward. Instead, the team had to find a new way to celebrate.
“We did have an ice cream party and students received certificates after qualifying for nationals, which was our last celebration in school,” said Logan Burke, who coached the Preston team to victory. “It sounds like National Science Bowl might be planning something great for us next year!”
Not that celebrations were at the front of her mind. With the national competition looming – and a completely new format to boot – there was a lot of preparation necessary.
“Once we found out that the National Science Bowl was still being held, we began practicing again that week,” said Burke. “We practiced virtually and tried to make our practices follow the competition format as closely as we could. We practiced how to answer questions and communicate with each other through Zoom. Each of the team members also put in their own time to study.”
It was also necessary to plan around the unique quirks of the format.
“It took some getting used to,” she continued. “Instead of rushing to buzz in before the other team, we had to practice a new strategy of how to communicate very quickly and efficiently with each other.”
One tweak to the format that reduced the stress of the moment was that each team would compete on its own; there would not be head-to-head situations in which another team could steal a point for a question that Preston students could have otherwise answered correctly.
“The goal remained to get the most questions correct possible,” explained Burke, “but without the element of the other team stealing the question. We went through many question sets through Zoom in order to practice this way.”
“I think the format made things a lot easier,” said Jackson Dryg, one of the students on the Preston team. “Because there was no ‘other team’ present on Zoom, we didn’t have to worry about having faster reaction time; we just had to apply our knowledge. We could also quickly confer on all of the questions, which was a helpful change to the normal rules.”
Dryg enjoys math, as well as playing and composing music, reading, writing “strange fiction” and learning about as much as he can.
His teammate Colin Magelky agreed with the ways in which the format made things a bit easier, but he also discussed other difficulties.
“The virtual format made it more difficult because we weren’t able to get together as a team to practice or compete in person,” he said, “so we had to get really efficient at communicating virtually. And we weren’t just competing with one team at a time; we were being ranked, so we were competing with all teams at the same time.”
Magelky’s hobbies include reading, speedcubing, biking and technology. He is considering a career in biomedical engineering.
Whether the new format would ultimately make things easier or more difficult, the team had to be sure to prepare appropriately and practice as often as possible. Of course, even that practice was a bit different this time around: It was entirely online, both due to COVID-19 and to better prepare them for the virtual nature of the event.
“I would have preferred to be with the team in person, for sure,” said Burke. “In our normal practices, the team usually has some downtime together and have all become great friends over the past couple of years. Online felt a bit more formal and lost some of the goofiness that practice usually has. The kids really rose to the occasion, though, and continued to study and practice, even weeks into their summer!”
“It was kind of odd working as a team while being physically distant,” said Magelky. “We had to get used to dealing with technical difficulties such as audio issues, internet problems and video freezes. We also missed being able to hang out and have fun together.”
“It was difficult to stay motivated and focused without seeing Jackson, Colin, Kary and Quentin almost every day,” said Logan Bowers. “It was easy to forget to study and practice.”
Bowers enjoys reading, trombone, video games, hiking, camping and mountain biking. He is interested in working as an ecologist. Kary Fang also noticed an understandable difference during practice sessions. “During practices, we were more dead and introverted than when we had practice at school,” she said.
Fang’s interests include table tennis, piano, cooking, traveling and puzzling. She plans to be a golf-ball diver for half of her time and having fun as the rest of a career.”
By June, the team was as ready as it would ever be. The Preston students understood what the overall format would entail, at least in broad strokes, but it was impossible to fully prepare for whatever surprises might be in store.
“The virtual format was very different than it has been,” said Burke. “Competing with only our team in the room for the highest score against all other teams completely changed our strategy. Communication was more important than ever.”
Heading into the event, the students were not quite sure how they would perform.
“Since we’ve competed at the regional and national levels before, we knew how incredibly tough the competition is, and we didn’t think we’d able to win,” said Magelky. “I thought we had no real chance,” agreed Dryg. “Our goal was to be in the top 16, and that seemed barely possible.”
Fang, seeking precision, calculated Preston to have “like a 5% chance of winning.”
Quentin Perez-Wahl explained the less-than-optimistic outlook. “Our whole team was basing our odds off of last year’s National Science Bowl competition, where we did not make it that far,” he said.
Perez-Wahl has ambitions of becoming an aerospace engineer. In his free time he enjoys skiing, gaming, taekwondo, panning for gold, biking, building model rockets and developing his micronation.
“We were at least hoping for top 16 so that we could get money for Preston’s science department,” he continued, “but we felt that would be still pretty unlikely.”
Making a win seem even less likely were the unfortunate technical hiccups that come with teleconferences.
“The time limit tied us down,” said Perez-Wahl. “Due to lag, five seconds where the judges were was not five seconds here in Fort Collins.”
The National Science Bowl Administration anticipated issues of this kind, and so they allowed eight seconds for a response rather than five. The lag was often longer than expected, however.
“Sometimes it was even less than five seconds,” Perez-Wahl said. “That really rushed us and made it harder to answer in time.”
“Some technical difficulties with Zoom made the competition harder,” Bowers agreed, “but other aspects, such as not competing in the same room as another team and being able to confer on tossup questions, made it significantly easier.”
The timing problem also had its upside, however, with the team being given the benefit of the doubt in close calls. “For a lot of the questions, someone raised their hand at the same time the timer called ‘time,’” Fang remembered. “But they still let us answer.”
In spite of the difficulties, morale stayed high.
“It seemed almost as if we were still together at a table, answering questions like we would if the National Science Bowl were still held in Washington, D.C.,” Perez-Wahl said. “We still retained our sense of humor and did not lose our sense of teamwork.”
As the event unfolded and Preston continued doing well, a first-place finish became a surprisingly realistic prospect.
“I did not think we would win,” Bowers said flatly. “I was surprised we made the top 32, and I was more surprised every time we advanced further in the competition.”
And yet they did keep advancing, until there was nowhere left to advance.
“I shouted a whole ton in my basement,” Perez-Wahl said. “I got pretty stoked, realizing that we won.”
Room at the top
Before they fully realized it, they’d made history as winners of the first virtual National Science Bowl. Of course, the pandemic made celebration a bit trickier than it would have otherwise been.
“After a long day of competition, I just celebrated by having boba tea with my family,” said Magelky. Perez-Wahl did the same thing with homemade pudding.
Fang put her celebrations memorably: “I ate food and was forced to die in a table tennis lesson.”
“We had a short Zoom meeting to celebrate as a team,” Bowers said. Afterward his family celebrated by having dinner together. “I would have liked to have competed the way teams normally do, but I am glad that I participated in a competition so different from prior ones.”
“It feels pretty cool to have won along with my teammates,” said Perez-Wahl. “It was really fun to be able to demonstrate my knowledge of new concepts that I have learned this year at practice in a fun and competitive way with many others from across the nation.”
For Dryg, the experience still feels like a dream. “I’m still in numb disbelief about the whole thing,” he said.
As the 2020 National Champions, the Preston Middle School team members will be invited to attend the 2021 National Finals as special guests and will be recognized in the 2021 Awards Ceremony.
Burke, who coached the students to their historic victory, could not be more proud of their work. “This team worked so hard for their accomplishment,” she said. “They deserve it!”
High school runners up
Preston’s was not the only impressive finish by a WAPA-hosted event winner; Mira Loma High School, winners of the Sacramento Regional High School Science Bowl, took second place among high school competitors. This team consisted of Vishwa Akkati, Nipun Dour, Albert Qin, Achyuta Ramesh and Rohan Shelke, competing under Coach James Hill.
“Congratulations to this year’s National Science Bowl winners from Dougherty Valley High School and Preston Middle School,” said Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette, announcing the results. “Your dedication and commitment to this challenging competition in this unprecedented time speaks volumes to your level of determination and integrity. I have the utmost confidence that all of this year’s National Science Bowl participants are up to the great task of ensuring American leadership in science, technology and innovation for generations to come.”
Coach Logan Burke, Logan Bowers, Quentin Perez-Wahl, Colin Magelky, Jackson Dryg and Kary Fang won the Colorado Regional Middle School Science Bowl in February. In June, they parlayed that into a win at the National Science Bowl.