ORISE supports DOE Office of Science with first-ever Virtual National Science Bowl® finals competition

Each year the DOE National Science Bowl® brings together hundreds of high school and middle school students to compete in the nation’s largest science competition in Washington, D.C. Years from now, historical records will show that students from California and Colorado won the 2020 DOE National Science Bowl®. However, what might not be so obvious is that these students achieved such honors by competing in the first-ever virtual National Science Bowl® finals competition.

National Science Bowl screen capture

Risha Chakraborty, Kenneth Moon, Venkat Ranjan, Daniel Shen, and Anugrah Chemparathy of Dougherty Valley High in San Ramon, California, compete in the Academic Tournament during the 2020 National Science Bowl® hosted online, Friday, June 5, 2020. Dougherty Valley High won the National Championship. Photo credit: National Science Bowl®, Department of Energy, Office of Science

DOE Office of Science's Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists created the National Science Bowl® in 1991 and ORISE has assisted with coordinating and executing the competition on DOE’s behalf since 1998. This year the two organizations had to work closely together to monitor current events and continuously adjust in response to the unfolding global pandemic.

Typically, more than 900 students, coordinators, and volunteers travel to the nation’s capital for the competition in late April/early May. There were 32 middle school teams and 32 high school teams planning to make that trip after having beat out more than 13,000 other students in regional competitions across the nation. However, in early March, DOE and ORISE noticed that shelter-in-place and social distancing guidance released by organizations such as the  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases had significant reverberations for the 2020 National Science Bowl®.

Initially, DOE decided to spread out the final event over the course of two months with the top teams competing virtually in June and the ultimate winners traveling to Washington, D.C., in August as an award trip.  Even though the teams would compete virtually in June, event planners still planned to have approximately 80 volunteers and coordinators onsite at the National 4-H Center where the competition is usually held in order to orchestrate the virtual portion. But as the spread of the coronavirus continued and communities across the nation encouraged citizens to stay home, adjustments were made to cancel the in-person portion. During the month of May, 106 preliminary rounds were conducted online, ultimately deciding which schools would comprise the middle school and high school teams moving on to the final competition. Modifications were made once again to cancel the award trip option for August. Finally, the top 32 middle school and 32 high school teams competed virtually on June 5 and 6, respectively.

National Science Bowl screen capture

Jackson Dryg, Colin Magelky, Kary Fang, Quentin Perez-Wahl, and Logan Bowers of Preston Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado, compete in the Academic Tournament during the 2020 National Science Bowl® hosted online, Friday, June 5, 2020. Preston Middle School won first place in the middle school competition. Photo credit: National Science Bowl®, Department of Energy, Office of Science.

“Up until March, we were proceeding with all our normal preparations for managing procurement of materials and supplies, promotional materials, services, meeting spaces, and business amenities for the main event,” said ORISE National Science Bowl® Project Manager Allen Wash. “But as the fluidity of the situation became greater and greater, we were communicating daily with our DOE customers and making constant adjustments to reflect cancelled travel arrangements and changing event dates as outlined under numerous subcontracts.”

The ORISE National Science Bowl® logistics team established a contract with Zoom that allowed for the competition to continue online. As the competition proceeded, 32 high school teams were whittled down to one champion, Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon, California, and 32 middle school teams were whittled down to one champion, Preston Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado. Wash also served as an academic official during the virtual competition.

Coincidentally, it wasn’t just the winning teams that relished the experience. After the virtual competition, Basis Chandler High School (Chandler, Arizona) team coach Theresa Grubek had this to say about the experience: “I just wanted to say THANK YOU SO MUCH! I know that putting this virtual competition together must have been an incredible amount of work and everything went off flawlessly. On behalf of myself and my team I just want to let you know that we are so very grateful for all your efforts.  We had a great time competing and we’re looking forward to seeing you in D.C. next year!”

As the 2020 national champions, the Dougherty Valley High School and Preston Middle School team members will attend the 2021 national finals as special guests and be recognized in the 2021 awards ceremony. Ultimately, the combined efforts from DOE and ORISE to move the 2020 finals competition to an online environment demonstrated a “proof of concept” and a path forward for the 2021 regional competitions should travel and large-scale in-person events continue to be restricted.

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Pam Bonee
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The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) asset that is dedicated to enabling critical scientific, research, and health initiatives of the department and its laboratory system by providing world class expertise in STEM workforce development, scientific and technical reviews, and the evaluation of radiation exposure and environmental contamination.

ORISE is managed by ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, for DOE’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.osti.gov.