by syaffolee

Bzzzt! Interrupt!

This past weekend, I volunteered to be a scientific judge at the regional middle school science bowl which was sponsored by the Department of Energy. The winning team gets an all expenses paid trip to Washington D.C. to compete nationally. I figured I’d do my part to get kids excited about the sciences. The more young people who are interested in finding out how the world works, the better. We already have too many people working on explicating the oeuvre of T.S. Elliot*.

I was on a quiz bowl team when I was in high school, so on a logistical front, I found it pretty fascinating to be on the other side. As the scientific judge, I had the final say on whether or not to accept an ambiguous answer, to control the buzzer system, and to call on the kid who buzzed in first. The score keeper had a pretty easy job, but I did not envy the moderator who had to read out questions non-stop for the entire day or the time keeper who had to keep track of several timers at once. Knowing me, my voice would have probably gone out after the second round and I would have gotten the timers mixed up.

Besides some last minute rushing around and a brief snafu during the double elimination rounds, I’d say most of the event went quite smoothly. I found it really interesting just observing the teams. Some teams were obviously very competitive. They were in this to win. Other teams, it was more for fun. The competitive teams were extremely good. There were several strategies that I saw the kids utilize to help them get points: 1) if you definitely know the answer to the question, buzz in even if the moderator has not finished speaking; 2) there’s no harm in guessing if the other team got the question wrong; 3) attempt every math problem; 4) don’t whisper when you’re discussing a bonus question with your teammates–the captain, who must answer for the team, must hear your answer to make an informed decision. The other team is not allowed the bonus question, so what’s the harm in saying (or even shouting) aloud?

The competitive teams had quite a few parents and relatives invested in the event–whenever one of these teams were up, the room became packed to capacity. Personally, I kind of felt bad for the not-so-good teams who came up against them, because they got soundly trounced. And you could totally see their disappointment with their dejected body language (even if no one broke down crying). Which brings up another interesting observation: all of the really high scoring teams, without exception, were all boys. Now, I’ve seen some good teams with mixed genders, but all girl teams seemed to fare the worst. I don’t think that this says anything about the intelligence of anyone–rather that it’s more an indication of aggressiveness. The boys seemed far more willing to press the buzzer than the girls who probably didn’t want to interrupt the moderator. In fact, I don’t think I recall a single instance that a girl ever interrupted the moderator. This makes me wonder if the cultural “expectation” that girls should be polite is even more insidiously ingrained in us than we already think.

Anyways, I had to leave early so I didn’t get to see the final showdown. But I did manage to attend one of the later double elimination rounds where two fairly evenly matched teams got to go against each other. At half point, they were neck and neck (you could feel the parents’ tension in the standing room only classroom). I thought it was quite exciting–not only were the players aggressive with buzzing in but both teams were freakishly knowledgeable about the material. Obscure astronomical terms? Doing math problems containing factorials in a split second? Figuring out elemental identities out of atomic orbitals? Heck, I was impressed. My middle school science teachers were too busy blubbering about happy little animals and making us copy definitions to teach us anything.

*My biases, of course. But if you think an understanding of T.S. Elliot is essential in keeping the world running, you’re welcome to try to convince others of it.