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Fierce competitions propel two local teams to National Science Bowl

Two local teams turned their knowledge of science and math into a ticket to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Science Bowl® after winning the N.J. Regional Science Bowl® at PPPL on Feb. 20 and 21.  

The West Windsor-Plainsboro South (WWPS) High School team won first place in the High School Science Bowl on Saturday, Feb. 21 in 12 rounds of fierce competition. The contest brought 32 teams from throughout New Jersey together to compete to answer challenging questions in general science, earth science, physical science, math, and technology.

The John Witherspoon Middle School team won the middle school contest on Friday, Feb. 20, after defeating William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge in an 11th round of competition.

Each team will compete against 49 other regional teams in the National Science Bowl in Washington D.C. April 30 to May 4.

But even some teams that were defeated were happy to compete. One middle school student who was on the second-string “B” team was happy when his team was allowed to take part in the contest after one of the schools didn’t show up. “When we first played my heart was pounding, it was so exhilarating,” he said.

For WWPS, the victory at the high school competition was something of a comeback. The team won the regional competition in 2013. While the current team members didn’t compete in that contest, many were members of the Thomas Grover Middle School Team in 2012 when it won the regional contest.

“This win feels awesome,” said team member Dhruva Byrapatna. “We’re the redeem team!”

Praise for volunteers

Byrapatna said he and his teammates were grateful to PPPL for hosting the contest and to the many volunteers who helped out. “First of all, I want to thank PPPL,” he said. “The moderators knew a lot and they were pretty funny and they made it very enjoyable to compete in this today.”

This year was the 22nd year PPPL has hosted the Science Bowl. A total of 60 volunteers from PPPL helped out at the contest as moderators, judges, and timekeepers with 20 volunteering in the middle school contest and 40 coming on a snowy Saturday to help with the high school contest. “We had a terrific group of volunteers,” said Andrew Zwicker, head of Science Education.

Zwicker singled out Deedee Ortiz, who has been organizing the massive event since September. “None of this happens unless one person in particular is working,” Zwicker said, before leading the audience in a round of applause for Ortiz.

PPPL’s Science Bowl uses software developed by Eliot Feibush, a computational scientist at PPPL, and a team of high school interns. The program automatically updates the latest contest, room assignments and scores and projects them on colored brackets shown on screens in the lobby and on people’s smart phones. Regional science bowls around the country have caught on to the innovation and have been calling Zwicker to ask for a copy, Ortiz said.

Excitement in the final rounds

Both contests had plenty of excitement in the final rounds. In the high school contest, WWPS and Bridgewater were tied at the end of Round 10, and had to go into the Science Bowl equivalent of extra innings when the contestants answer a round of five toss-up questions.

After WWPS won that round, the Bridgewater High School and Millburn High School teams competed to win a place in the final contest with Millburn defeating Bridgewater. That left Bridgewater in third place and in the end, Millburn won second place.

In the middle school competition, John Witherspoon faced close competition from William Annin in the final round, after the 14 other competing teams were eliminated. “It was really close,” said Witherspoon team member Jeffrey Cheng. “We were worried that we couldn’t pull through.” “We got scared but decided to keep doing what we were doing,” added Team Captain Lukas Eriksson.

Like all of the teams competing, the team practiced regularly with buzzers. But William Merritt, who has coached the Science Bowl for six years, said he also was worried. “I think I was more nervous than the kids were,” he said.

William Annin came in second place in the middle school competition. Highland Park won third place and also won the “school spirit trophy” for having the best sportsmanship of all the teams.

“That was an amazing day of competition centered on science topics,”  Zwicker told the audience. 

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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