Sponsoring a Regional Science Bowl Contest

“Arrange the following four fresh water sources from the most to the least prevalent on Earth: groundwater, glaciers, freshwater lakes, rivers.”

“How many grams each of NaOH and H2O must be mixed to make an 800-gram aqueous solution that is 3.0 percent NaOH by mass?”

“What is the wavelength, in meters, of a sound wave that has a frequency of 1,700 Hertz and a speed in a certain medium of 340 meters per second?”

These are a sampling of the types of questions posed to thousands of high school and middle school students in the U.S. Department of Energy’s annual National Science Bowl competition. (For answers to the three questions posed above, see page 77.)

The 2007 Science Bowl high school competition included 67 regional events, involving more than 12,000 students. The national middle school competition had 31 regional events for more than 5,000 students. Regional champions qualify for the national tournament.

Each year, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) sponsors the regional tournament for Oregon and southwestern Washington State. Headquartered in Portland, Ore., BPA is a federal agency under the U.S. Department of Energy. It operates an extensive electricity transmission system and markets wholesale electrical power from 31 federal dams, other nonfederal hydroelectric facilities, and other generation facilities serving the Pacific Northwest.

Other regional sponsors range from small companies to the Fortune 1000; national sponsors include General Motors, AREVA, Inc., Bechtel Corporation, IBM, and Texas Instruments. 

“The Science Bowl is one of our biggest outreach efforts to the community,” says Cheri Benson, BPA’s science bowl coordinator. “The tournament is a proven tool in encouraging students from across the nation to excel in math and science and to pursue careers in those fields. One of BPA’s goals is to encourage increased participation in mathematics and science courses and careers, especially among populations underrepresented in these fields.”

Teams of four students and one alternate each compete in a “Jeopardy” style question and answer format, with a moderator asking the questions, and team members responding. Questions cover math, astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, and general science.

Similar to a sporting event, the Science Bowl’s fast-paced question-and-answer competitions follow a round robin format with a single- or double-elimination final tournament. For the round robin, organizers randomly assign each team to one of eight divisions. Each team plays four other teams within that division. At the end of each game, regardless of the overall score, two points are awarded for a win, one point for a tie, and zero points for a loss.

This Skyview High School team from Vancouver, Ore., won the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2007 Regional Science Bowl. The Bonneville Power Administration sponsors the annual competition as a way to encourage participation in math and science courses and careers.
Click here to enlarge image

First place regional winners get an expense-paid trip to the national competition. In 2007, the high school national finals were April 26-30 in Washington, D.C., and the middle school finals were June 21-24 in Denver, Colo. The high school national championship team wins a science-related trip. The middle school national champions win a cash prize and several sponsor-supplied prizes.

Organizing, preparing for the regional competition

The U.S. Department of Energy provides the questions and answers for all regional competitions. When the questions and answers arrive, Benson puts them through a second review by a team of volunteers – some from BPA and some from outside BPA – who have master’s degrees in math and science.

“The Department of Energy requires that all regional competitions use their questions,” Benson says. “Even though they put the questions through a stringent review process, they ask us to put them through our own review before they are finalized and sent to moderators and judges two weeks before competition day.”

Planning for BPA’s regional competition begins in the spring of each year, says Benson, who also manages BPA’s community relations and education programs. She coordinates with school calendars and sets the dates for the following year’s tournament. She also secures a venue. For the past six years, the University of Portland has served as event host and co-sponsor.

BPA hosts a competition for 64 high school teams and 50 middle school teams – usually back to back – two Saturdays in a row. It is one of the largest Regional Science Bowls in the U.S. Schools begin registering in September by visiting the BPA Internet site, with a registration deadline in early December. Final rosters for competition are announced in early January.

Benson is responsible for planning and executing the regional competition, serving as the winning team’s point of contact, and working with the national coordinator. She appoints a team of volunteers from BPA.

“My team has been volunteering for Science Bowl for years,” she says, “so they know a lot about the event. All but one person is from BPA, and she is the wife of our games master. She and her husband moved to Portland the year BPA started Science Bowl. They missed the first one – but have been to every one since. They are probably my most experienced volunteers. Like all of my other volunteers, they love Science Bowl and look forward to it every year.”

Volunteers who assist with the competition include a games master, coach coordinator, score room coordinator, and volunteer coordinator. In addition to the team, more than 125 volunteers work as moderators, judge/timekeepers, scorekeepers, runners, and miscellaneous support staff. The night before the event, volunteers set up the room and test the Quick Pro Lock Out Buzzer System.

“It’s a race with the clock to get everything ready before competition day,” Benson says. “Everything is set up the night before because activities begin at dawn the next day.”

In addition to BPA employees, other volunteers come from local universities, hospitals, and private companies. “I don’t have to recruit them – my volunteers do that,” Benson says. “They talk to friends and relatives. We also get students in local colleges who participated in Science Bowl when they were in high school. They know the game already so I don’t have to train them as moderators, judges, and timekeepers.”

Benson says that most volunteers return the following year.

Planning activities for the regional bowl occur throughout the year and involve securing sponsors, securing scholarships from local universities for the top three winning teams, training volunteers, and advertising and promoting Science Bowl through the Oregon and Washington Science Teachers Association.

“We are not members of the teacher associations, but they send our promotions out to schools free of charge,” Benson says.

The Internet site goes live September 1 with online registration, and Benson’s staff sends packets of information to coaches.

There is one contract for giveaways such as backpacks, water bottles, pens, hats, or shirts, and local vendors compete for it. “It’s a lot easier to work with only one contractor,” Benson says. “As a government agency, we have to have competitive contracts and give everyone a fair chance. We choose from three vendors, who come in and present their ideas and products. I have a team of four employees who choose the vendors to make presentations. I also solicit local food vendors to donate or provide discounts on food for volunteers, students, and coaches.”

Getting media attention

BPA’s public affairs office conducts extensive media relations activities before, during, and after the event with a goal of ensuring that the public understands the importance of the program and the benefits it provides to these students’ educations. In advance of the science bowl, BPA sends news releases to media in Portland and in each community with a team in the competition. BPA media relations staff pitches angles for feature stories about unique aspects of certain teams or individuals (e.g., an entirely female team, a Hispanic team from a small town, etc.).

Immediately before the tournament, a media advisory tailored to broadcast media – supported with “pitch calls” from BPA’s media relations staff – helps encourage television news turnout on the day of the event and also sets up an opportunity to conduct advance and post-event radio interviews.

In 2007, the BPA media relations team also created a lunchtime “Celebrity BPA Science Bowl Challenge” that pitted students against a team of science writers from two major newspapers and weather forecasters from two Portland TV stations. “This tactic helped garner additional coverage and made for a fun event,” Benson says.

Just after the end of the championship round, radio interviews include results from the top three winning teams. Additional follow up with community newspapers occurs on the Monday following the event.

Benefits to BPA

Benson says BPA’s executive leadership is committed to Science Bowl. “They work the competitions, and come to watch and encourage students,” she says. “We are a technical organization, and we are looking to the next generation of engineers and scientists to come and work for us after they graduate from college. And it is an activity that our own employees can participate in – encouraging and mentoring young people in an area that the employees are familiar with and work in every day. It just makes sense for us to do this.”

– Contact Cheri Benson at Bonneville Power Administration, 905 N.E. 11th Avenue, Portland, OR 97232; (1) 503-230-3325; E-mail: Information about the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Science Bowl® is available at http://nationalscience


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