The 2021 Tennessee Science Bowl proved to be very different from how the event looked over the previous 30 years.
The 31st annual event was held virtually for the first time ever and required a completely different level of preparation than years past, but Kayla Canario, ORISE K-12 STEM education program manager, called the 2021 event a resounding success.
“Being able to offer something that we would do in a normal year was key, and everyone was willing to put their time and energy in to make it successful,” she said.
While the competition between the 350 students and coaches representing 52 teams from across the state might seem like the obvious purpose of the Tennessee Science Bowl, Canario says the opportunity for students to interact with the STEM professionals who volunteer for the event, encouraging them to pursue STEM careers, is the underlying goal. Before each round of the competition began, the volunteers spoke with the students about who they are and what they do in their respective fields.
Students were able to ask questions of the volunteers and, maybe, see themselves as future scientists and engineers in the process. It’s Canario’s favorite part of the event.
“The fact that we were able to capture that part of the event virtually was huge,” Canario said. “The volunteers come back year after year to support the next generation of STEM leaders, and they had the opportunity to do that.”
Still, there was the competition to manage, and Canario said she and her team didn’t have a lot of time to transition the event from in-person to virtual.
Literally everything about the event had to be overhauled. Canario said every page of the TSB website had to be rewritten to accommodate the virtual format. The rewriting process helped Canario and her team determine everything they had to consider in the transition to a virtual event, including registration, revamping training material, virtual set-up for the competitions, and more.
“TSB is traditionally very heavy on logistics,” Canario said. Hotel rooms have to be booked, an opening banquet planned, meals and travel provided for, etc. In the virtual world, the logistics were more often student- and school-specific.
For example, competing students were required to have two cameras to ensure the integrity of the competition: one on their laptop to see their faces, another on a mobile device to see their workspaces. Some students didn’t have access to Wi-Fi or personal laptops, so ORAU provided hotspots and laptops when needed. In one case, Canario had to advocate for a team that wanted to participate, but their school district had a policy against using Zoom.
“Thankfully, in the end we worked it out so that all of the teams who wanted to compete were able to compete,” she said.
Additionally, coaches and volunteers needed to be trained to understand the changes and fully participate in the virtual event.
“We have honed how we’ve produced Tennessee Science Bowl every year for 30 years. We truly have it down to a science,” Canario said. “Getting everyone to reframe how to support the event differently was definitely a challenge.”
Before the competition, virtual training sessions were offered several times for coaches, so they could understand everything they needed to know to help their teams be successful. Training sessions were also held for volunteers, whose roles were completely changed from previous years. Every position involved Zoom in some way, which some coaches and volunteers were uncomfortable using.
On the two competition days, Saturdays Feb. 27 and March 6, a total of 26 laptops were spread across two rows of tables in ORAU’s technology-enabled classroom on its main campus in Oak Ridge. Each laptop represented a competition room on Zoom, where a team would answer as many questions correctly as possible. Canario, Jennifer Tyrell, Chris Nelson, Karen Brummett and Andrew Fowler, all masked and socially distanced, moved among the laptops to ensure volunteers and moderators had everything they needed and were prepared to go. They circulated among the laptops after every round was completed to ensure the next groups of teams got to the right place. There was also a laptop set aside for technical support, where volunteers or coaches could ask questions.
By all appearances, the event hummed like a well-oiled machine.
“It was surprisingly smooth,” Canario said. “It definitely challenged our participants, and we had schools participate for the first time that hadn’t been able to before because they couldn’t travel.”
She added that they’ve already gotten some great evaluations back from students and coaches, including notes of appreciation for a video dedicated to the memory of Lynn Freeny, the Department of Energy photographer who was the TSB photographer for every one of the first 30 years. Freeny passed away in 2020.
“I’m grateful that the first year we had to hold TSB without Lynn was the year it was virtual, and we didn’t need a photographer. He is and will continue to be sorely missed,” Canario said.
See the list of sponsors for the Tennessee Science Bowl, which includes Platinum sponsors ORAU and ORISE.
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.