Sometimes the rules smooth out the bumps in the road of life — turn right on red after a complete stop; first come, first served.
Sometimes the rules break against you — no parking; no shoes, no shirt, no service.
During his four years of competition in the Department of Energy's National Science Bowl® (NSB), Sam Elder saw both sides of the rules: the rule that tripped up his opponents and the rule that kept him from representing his school in his senior year.
His school, Poudre High School located in Fort Collins, Colorado, had a reputation for its strong science competition programs. Every year the coach, Jack Lundt, prepared students for the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, the Science Olympiad, and the National Science Bowl®. Poudre's competition program was so popular that often two, even three, teams would form and vie in each and every science contest.
In 2006 — Elder's sophomore year — he made the first team, a team consisting wholly of juniors and sophomores who battled all the way to the national competition where, "unfortunately, we lost in the Single Elimination," Elders recalls. "But we were still happy," because the team was already planning to come back the next year. As seasoned seniors and juniors, they would be experienced and eager to show what they could do.
The team was: Elder, who was always the math guy; Logan Wright, the earth sciences expert; Winston Gao, the biologist who knew quite a bit of astronomy; Patrick Chaffey, the biology and chemistry guy; and Sam Sun, "the strongest of the team, so we made him the captain," remembers Elder. "Sam was very competitive and wanted us to have this drive, this killer instinct, and be able to buzz in quickly."
In the National Science Bowl® — the questions are either multiple choice or short answer. For the multiple choice questions, a moderator reads the questions, then reads four possible answers, each labeled with a letter: W, X, Y, or Z. The participant — after being called on by the moderator — replies with the full answer or just the letter.
The classic strategy is to buzz in as soon as you know the answer. For example: suppose the correct answer is Z. As you listen, you realize it's not the first three answers read — W, X, or Y; you use the process of elimination to determine it is Z. So you buzz in quickly after Y is read, before Z is even started.
But if the answer is one of the other choices — say X, you buzz in as soon as you can tell — as soon as the first half of the answer indicated to you it is the correct answer; then you immediately buzz. The most challenging answer to determine is W — the first answer.
Elder felt motivated to study. "I spent time on my breaks studying. We were studying topics far beyond the classes we were taking. The competitions really motivated me. There was a payoff."
They did win their regional competition and headed back to Washington, D.C. again for the national finals. The team was united, committed, experienced. While other teams wore matching sweater vests, Elder and his friends wore colorful Hawaiian shirts. When a social activity was cancelled, the team agreed: Let's go back to our room and study. Poudre felt that 2007 was their year to be champions.
The competition began; Poudre advanced, undefeated, and went into the Double Elimination rounds, where "these were the best teams. Now it started getting real. I remember the pace quickening."
Poudre's strategy was to answer as quickly as possible.
"I remember doing that on a chemistry question in the Double Elimination. We didn't have to wait to hear all four answers, then make up our minds. It was like, 'that is the answer; I'm going to go for it right away'. It set the tone for the match — everything was going to be optimal for us. So it was intense and exciting," says Elder. "We won all our matches that first night."
Then Poudre faced a strong team from Miami Palmetto High School. "The Miami team took a pretty healthy lead," recalls Elder. "But near the beginning of the second half, one of their players blurted."
Rule 4-1. If a student from a team that has buzzed in answers before being recognized, it is termed a blurt and the moderator will award 4 points to the opposing team but will not indicate whether the answer was correct or not.
That blurt gave Poudre four points and the opportunity to answer the question [4 more points for the correct answer, the opportunity to answer the follow-up bonus question, and 10 more points for a total of 18]. "It just deflated the Miami team. It was a big swing from the blurt. We clawed back and won the match."
Poudre moved on to the final rounds and won the 2007 National Science Bowl® championship. They were invited to the Oval Office, a chance to meet President George W. Bush for congratulations, handshakes, and a photo.
When the team came home, "Our school was really passionate and excited. This was the first time a team had won nationals in any science competition.
"That was really sweet to see the pride in northern Colorado. Our winning was really special for our community."
And, "since the President congratulated us, this meant that every local and state official had to, too. The governor of Colorado came to a school assembly to recognize us. The City Council invited us to attend and gave us the key to the city," recalls Elder. "I still have the key."
But the following year, when Elder was a senior, the rules did not work in his favor.
Rule 1-4. The National Science Bowl® requires students and coaches to take part in ALL of its events and activities. Therefore, no waivers will be granted or special arrangements made for students to participate in any conflicting activities or exams.
This time Elder and his friends won their Science Bowl regional competition while preparing to take their International Baccalaureate® year-end exams. Unfortunately, these exams were being held the same weekend as the NSB championship. Poudre lobbied to skip the NSB cultural activities so they could take the IB exam, but the NSB rules committee stood firm — if they could not attend all the NSB activities, they could not compete in the national contest. Elder and friends opted to take the IB exam; the second place finishers from a rival school went to D.C. in their place.
Elder went on to attend Caltech on a full scholarship, studying math and chemistry as a double major. He next earned his Ph.D. in applied mathematics at MIT and is now a scientist at Kebotix, a high-tech materials discovery and production company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, doing machine learning to accelerate chemical discovery.
"The Science Bowl is a fantastic opportunity to get down the basics of science. It was helpful to me to have this underlying foundation. It's not about the tricky questions," Elder advises. "Do it for the solid foundation you can later build on."
Profiles of Past Competitors: please go to Historical Information - National Finals - Profiles of Past Competitors to read more student stories about their NSB experiences.
The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science manages the National Science Bowl® and sponsors the NSB finals competition. The 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 please visit https://www.energy.gov/science.
Sandra Allen McLean is a Communications Specialist in the Office of Science, email@example.com.