Local students play mind games at JPL in National Science Bowl regional competition


Two words were frequently used by students to describe regional competition for the U.S. Department of Energy National Science Bowl: “nerve-racking” and “fun.”

On Saturday, more than 100 students from high schools throughout Southern California took part in the competition, which marked its 24th year at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada. Schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District are not included because the district holds its own regional tournament.

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Among the 24 teams taking part in the scholarly battle were Crescenta Valley and Clark Magnet high schools in La Crescenta, Hoover High in Glendale and La Cañada High.

The event was sponsored by NASA, JPL, Foothill Trophy and the U.S. Department of Energy.

“We have amazing students here,” said Kim Lievense, manager of JPL’s public services office. “It’s really more about the learning experience. We’re really wanting to just help out where students just learn more and more.”

Each team is made up of four students, plus one alternate and a coach. Each round consisted of two seven-minute halves, with teams tackling a wide variety of topics in science and math, including physics, geometry, biology, geology and chemistry.

In one space, called the “War Room,” the team from La Cañada High School faced off against students from Palos Verdes Peninsula High.

The students sat at a wide table, each gripping a buzzer and ready to press it as soon as one of them felt confident enough to answer the question, which came in the form of either a short answer or multiple choice.

Among those questions: How many exterior angles does a pentagon have? During what lunar phase do neap tides occur? Mixed oxide fuels are used in the production of what type of energy? Which mutation is responsible for sickle cell disease? What are the prime factors of 84?

La Cañada pulled ahead in the second half to take the round 74-40.

“We definitely did better than I expected in this round, said senior Deborah Oh, a second-year competitor at JPL. “I think that we’re doing really well.”

Seniors Henry Muller and Alec Lourenco explained how the team trains and relies on each member’s strengths in specific fields.

“Alec and Deborah take all the biology questions … I kind of pick up little crumbs left over,” Muller said.

While the top eight teams go on to compete in the double-elimination round, the 16 teams that didn’t make it still get a rewarding experience — talking to JPL employees and Caltech students about how to plan for their future careers.

Lievense said she’s seen students who competed at the Science Bowl go on to work for NASA, including at JPL.

“It makes it exciting for us to see these kids and where they wind up,” she said.

“The whole experience is … way more than winning,” said Hoover High team coach Linda Tandy, who teaches earth and space science at the school and has been bringing teams to JPL for 18 years.

This year’s Hoover team won two of the five rounds and was made up of all first-time students to the competition, but Tandy said despite being “slammed” in a few of the matchups, the students were getting a lot out of their experience.

“They’re having a great time,” she said. “It’s more about just being here and just being involved in that fast-paced thinking and that adrenaline rush when you do get it right, or even when you don’t.”

After the first five rounds, the students took a lunch break in a large conference room.

Crescenta Valley High School team captain Adrian Samkian said his team had “a symmetric day,” so far.

“We’ve won two, lost two and tied one,” the 12th-grader said. He added that this year, his second at the competition, he noticed a lot more questions related to energy.

“It’s nice that they’re advocating energy conservation and the greenness of the planet,” Samkian said.

After lunch, students made their way to Pickering Auditorium, where the top eight finalists were announced.

None of the four local schools made that initial cut, but Crescenta Valley High School was honored with the Sportsmanship Award.

After the double-elimination rounds, Irvine’s Northwood High School came in third place.

In a head-to-head match inside Pickering Auditorium, the team from Troy High School in Fullerton beat Temple City High’s team to take first place.

Troy High’s team will take an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington D.C. in April for a shot at the national title.

Also on Saturday, middle school students from Glendale, La Crescenta and La Cañada Flintridge participated in their first-ever Science Bowl of a national scale at Cal State Los Angeles.

Like their high-school counterparts, they also competed for a chance to win an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. to compete at the national level.

Bangyan Stiles coached the team representing Rosemont Middle School.

The team won third place, with each member earning bronze medals, he said. They lost to defending champion Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, as well as to Harvard Westlake, which placed second.

“I am so proud of them,” Stiles said. “They went in as a novice team who had not attended any competition before.”

They were also the only team of the 18 competing that was only made up of female students.

“The girls really deserve to be praised for daring to dream big and putting in the effort to reach high,” Stiles said.

Seventh- and eighth-graders from La Cañada High placed sixth in the competition. Coach Christine Werner said the team benefited from working with La Cañada high schoolers who mentored the younger students to expand their knowledge of math and science.

“The students had a great attitude and were enthusiastic to the end. This was the first time that they participated and the first time for me as well. Now, we know what to expect for next year,” she said.

Students from Roosevelt Middle School in Glendale also participated in the Science bowl, but their coach, Kenneth Marmie, was not available for comment.