In front of several hundred scientist-onlookers, Odle Middle School students fired off answers to a battery of questions that most of us wouldn’t even know how to approach.
Burying themselves in science books to prepare for a shot at national recognition, the seventh and eighth grades from Odle Middle School couldn’t keep a particular melody from looping in their minds. For an extra twist of stress, they sometimes played the “Jeopardy!” game-show theme at practices — sort of like weightlifting for the brain.
In April, all that training paid off, as the team from Bellevue took second place among 48 regional champions at the Department of Energy (DOE) National Science Bowl.
The contest, now in its 15th year for middle-schoolers, pitted more than 1,000 teams against one another, and whittled that down to 48 finalist groups that were invited to the ultimate contest in Washington, D.C.
“The hardest question was about black and white smokers — hot spots in the ocean,” said Odle eighth-grader Mahathi Mangipudi, thinking back over two dozen queries in chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics and earth and space science that she and her teammates had to answer correctly in 20 seconds or less.
Other than pencils and paper, the students had no tools. Calculators were prohibited.
“These kids are wicked smart, and their recall is amazing,” said Michael O’Byrne, a physics teacher from Bellevue’s Interlake High School who helped train them during the prior six months. “I’d never want to be in a buzz-in competition against them. I’d still be writing down the problem while they already had the answer.”
Interlake and Pullman high schools also sent students to the nationals, watching as the Odle Middle School students came within two questions of sweeping the competition. “It was heartbreaking,” said O’Byrne. “Really close.”
The Odle crew, who brought home a $1,000 check for Bellevue, lost to Joaquin Miller Middle School from San Jose, California.
At the high-school level, a team from Lexington, Massachusetts, earned the top prize by answering this riddle: “To the closest integer, what is the ratio of the energy radiated by a 7.8 earthquake to that radiated by a 6.8 earthquake?” (Correct response, 32.)
“One day I hope to see you working at one of our flagship national laboratories,” said DOE Secretary Rick Perry, congratulating all of the finalists.
The stereotype of science whiz-kids suggests that they revel in code and computation above more earthly pursuits. But Odle’s team includes violinist David Lee, an eighth-grader who also enjoys reading Quora posts on relationships and dating. Emily Feng, a pianist, is a badminton fan. And Daniel Sun, who loves classical music, plays piano, flute and piccolo.
Neil Chowdhury, the team’s only seventh-grader, is indeed a science and math fanatic who spends his free time writing computer programs. He easily recalled the easiest question of the day. “That was probably, ‘What’s the primary source of heating in Iceland?’ ” Neil said. “The answer is, geothermal energy.”