Argonne National Laboratory

Middle schoolers test their knowledge at science bowl competition

By Justin H.S. BreauxFebruary 15, 2017

For the fourth year in a row, Daniel Wright Jr. High School placed first among their peers at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory 2017 Regional Middle School Science Bowl.

This makes the sixth win in seven years for the suburban Chicago school, which will now go on to compete in the National Finals of the DOE National Science Bowl® in Washington, D.C., this April.

The National Science Bowl® is a fast-paced question-and-answer competition that tests students' knowledge in all areas of science and math. For the months leading up to the event, students work in teams to conduct practice drills outside of school, visit area museums and read online articles.

“For competitions like these, it’s really about learning life skills as well as science and math,” – Bednarcik Jr. High science teacher Amy Truemper

For some students, competitions like the Science Bowl can help them hone their already advanced knowledge of science and math. For others, particularly those unsure of how to translate these interests into science or math careers, it’s an opportunity to come face-to-face with researchers who work in science, computing and engineering fields while being surrounded and supported by a group of their own peers.

“The Science Bowl is really one of those first steps students can take to realize a career in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM),” said Jessica Dietzel, who leads education outreach at Argonne.

“This is something we call the STEM pipeline,” she said. “Just taking Argonne as one example, students can grow with us from the Science Bowl to our learning labs and on to select programs for those in high school. Then, once they are in college, students can take advantage of our robust internship program. This helps students see that if they just follow a few steps, they can eventually grow their interests into a STEM career.”

Now in its 27th year, the DOE National Science Bowl® is one of the nation's largest science competitions; more than 265,000 students have competed since 1991.

Though focused on science and math, the atmosphere created by gathering students, mentors and professionals in one location also provides other benefits that aren’t so obvious. 

“For competitions like these, it’s really about learning life skills as well as science and math,” said Amy Truemper, a science teacher at Bednarcik Junior High School. “A lot of students only want to do something if they know they know the right answer. This gives them the opportunity to try things out, and maybe they’re going to do well or they’re not, but it helps them work through some of those skills of dealing with frustration—and also dealing with excitement while still being gracious and kind to those teams who didn’t do so well.”

The competition day begins as students, coaches, parents and other visitors stream into Argonne. Students search for members of their teams while parents and coaches look for the competition itinerary, but they all find themselves together in a large auditorium for the official briefing on competition rules.

“The rules are probably the hardest part of the competition for these middle schoolers, especially those that have to do with just answering the question,” said Nicholas Smith, a chemist in Argonne’s Nuclear Engineering Division and one of the competition’s moderators. “They have to press the buzzer, wait to be recognized and then present the answer quickly and exactly in the way it was stated… nothing that a typical junior high kid is used to, so this experience turns out to be a really good exercise in containing themselves.”

Coordinating a competition like the Science Bowl is a massive effort, Dietzel said. At any one moment, several different rooms are housing family members, coaches and teams competing for 16-minute rounds. At the round’s end, everyone switches rooms and the competition begins again until a winner is finally announced.

So the coordinators enlisted the help of nearly 30 volunteers, including both Argonne researchers and graduate students from the Physical Sciences Department at the University of Chicago, who spent their Saturday filling in as competition moderators, timekeepers and scorekeepers.

At the competition’s end, trophies were awarded to Daniel Wright Middle School, Maple School and Jerling Junior High School for first, second and third place, respectively.

For some students like Maple School eighth-grader Natalie Sun, who will move from competing in middle school to competing in high school, the experience has been nerve-wracking but ultimately rewarding.

“Our teacher helped us a lot and kept us motivated to study really hard and try our best,” Sun said. “But in the end, it’s the thrill of winning a match that makes it so fun.”

DOE's Office of Science manages the program and sponsors the NSB finals. Over the next two months, several thousand students will compete in high school and middle school regional Science Bowl tournaments. More information about the DOE National Science Bowl® can be found online.

This year's participants in the Middle School DOE National Science Bowl® at Argonne included:

  • Abbott Middle School
  • Bednarcik Junior High School
  • Daniel Wright Junior High School
  • Glenn Westlake Middle School
  • Jerling Junior High School
  •  Leland Elementary School
  • Maple School
  •  Rickover Junior High School
  • Roosevelt School
  • Troy Middle School

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.