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The Olympics of science knowledge at PPPL’s NJ Regional Science Bowl

Just as the Olympics were wrapping up in Sochi, PPPL was hosting its own Olympics of sorts for budding young scientists. But this Olympics focused on young contestants’ knowledge of science, mathematics and technology in a quest to win the regional contest to compete in the National Science Bowl in Washington D.C.

Middle schoolers and high schoolers in the U.S. Department of Energy’s New Jersey Regional Science Bowl at PPPL used their brains to battle to the top in up to 12 rounds of a quiz show-type contest that posed very difficult questions in Earth science, physics, energy and math.

State College wins High School Science Bowl

In the High School Science Bowl, 32 teams making up some 160 students competed in a double elimination format. In the end, the College State Area High School team from Pennsylvania beat the Bridgewater-Raritan High School team. The Millburn, N.J. team came in third.

There was a hush in the room by the final rounds and the audience hung on every answer.

“Those last two rounds my heart’s been pounding,” said Ravi Agnihotri, of Bridgewater, a local resident who was cheering on the local high school team. “It’s been amazing. It’s been a great experience regardless of the outcome. I’m very proud of them.”

The State College team had traveled about 225 miles the night before the contest to compete and they were thrilled with the outcome.  “This makes our four-hour drive much, much better,” said Coach James Bleil.

“It was a great challenge,” said Team Captain Joseph Lin. “It’s a great feeling because we worked really hard. All of our teachers have been helping and supporting us.”

J Droids, of Warren, will go to middle school nationals

The Middle School Science Bowl on Feb. 21 pitted 16 teams from the New Jersey region against one another. In the end, J Droids, a science club in Warren, N.J., beat the John Witherspoon Middle School, of Princeton, in the final round and will go on to the national contest in Washington, D.C.  The Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School team came in third. John Witherspoon’s B team won the “Team Spirit Award” for staying to cheer on not only their classmates but also all the other teams.

“This was a long and intense day full of really amazing students who did a remarkable job answering questions,” Andrew Zwicker, head of PPPL’s Science Education, told students at the end of the Middle School Science Bowl. Zwicker worked with fellow physicist Arturo Dominguez all day, including the final contest. “Arturo and I are the science judges and most of the time we had no idea what the answer was,” Zwicker said.

 “They came from the brink – from the very edge of the precipice to win first place,” Zwicker said in announcing the winner. “Going to the National Science Bowl in D.C. are the J Droids!”

The last contests were nerve-wracking, said Bill Merritt, the John Witherspoon coach. “They’re excited, I’m nervous,” he said.

“It’s exciting going into the competition at first but now not so much,” said Aaron Wu, a member of the school’s “B Team,” which also competed.

Numerous volunteers

Project manager Deedee Ortiz coordinated the Science Bowl and numerous PPPL’ers and their family members volunteered. There were 21 volunteers at the middle school event and 38 volunteers at the high school event, many of whom stayed all day.

“The volunteers worked very hard – it was exhausting, it was such a long day, especially the moderators who had to sit there and read all day,” Ortiz said. “I’m so grateful. Everybody just does it with a smile on their face.”

“It’s work, you’re really just cranking through these questions,” said Daren Stotler, a physicist who was a moderator on Saturday. Despite his fatigue, he said he was glad to do it for the 20th year.  “I used to compete in science competitions. That’s why I was happy to get involved in this because it meant a lot to me back then.”

“One fun part is seeing how ridiculously smart these kids are,” said physicist Dennis Boyle, who worked as a timekeeper with Stotler for the sixth year in a row. “All of us are scientists but we weren’t necessarily at this level in high school.”

State College's Joseph Lin seemed to find going to nationals for his last Science Bowl somewhat bittersweet. “We love coming here,” he said. “I’m sad it will be our last year. It’s good to go out with this!” 

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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