LAHS students out-brain competition

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By Tris DeRoma

It was a pressure cooker last Saturday at Albuquerque Academy, as some 40 schools that came to compete in a regional high school science competition got picked off one by one. It eventually came down to Albuquerque Academy and Los Alamos High School. 

Albuquerque Academy answered an “interruption” question, and got it wrong; giving the four Los Alamos students (plus one alternate) the decisive victory in one of the most prestigious and intense science competitions New Mexico has to offer. 

The New Mexico High School Science Bowl winners this year from Los Alamos High School happened to be high school senior and captain Kevin Gao; school senior Aaron Bao; junior Alex Wang; and sophomore Willie Zhao.

Sponsored by the Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories, the New Mexico High School Science Bowl is where only the best and the brightest from New Mexico’s schools compete for the top honor, as the teams have to square off against other teams in a button-pushing, Jeopardy-style competition that has students answering questions in a multiple number of science disciplines, including math, physics, Earth science, chemistry, biology and astronomy. 

According to their coach and sponsor, chemistry teacher Kathy Boerigter, the level of competition at the event gets pretty intense. 

An “interruption” question is a question where a student hits the buzzer button before the person asking the question has time to finish. But if the person gives the wrong answer, then the competing team gets four points if someone on the team answers it right. Why would they risk it? “If they wait too long, then they might not get the buzzer,” Boerigter said. “It’s pretty intense and the questions are very hard.”

How hard are they? Here’s an example of what the team from Los Alamos may have had to answer, taken from a sample question on the competition website: 

“A food shipper pushes a wooden crate of lettuce with a total mass of 14 kilograms across a concrete floor with a constant horizontal force of magnitude 40 newtons. In a straight-line displacement of magnitude 0.50 meters, the speed of the crate decreases from 0.60 meters per second to 0.20 meters per second. How much work, in joules, is done by the horizontal force?” 

The answer, apparently, is 20, and that was just from a practice set. Add a buzzer and two teams of at least eight other people who think they know the answer, and you’ve got a game. Not to mention a better understanding of what an accomplishment the young men pulled off in Albuquerque. 

Boerigter said that though she was their coach and guide in the days and months leading up to the competition, she refuses to take any credit for their victory. 

“I have nothing to do with this, it’s all them,” she said, adding that they practiced every Monday at school, as well as on the weekends at each other’s houses.

Of course, the students are very smart, but Boerigter said they also have a real passion for science and math, something you have to have if you’re going to beat out 40 other schools in your state. 

“They love science and math, even as a hobby,” Boerigter said. “These are very brilliant young men who will probably go on to get their doctorates.” 

This isn’t the first year Los Alamos has won the New Mexico Science Bowl. Los Alamos High School won the Brain Bowl (the science bowl trophy) on several other consecutive occasions. That may be because the prior winners feel obliged to mentor students from the middle school before they leave for college.

“They just did everything in their power to get more kids interested and to work with them,” Boerigter said. 

She added that this current team will do the same, as well as help out with the middle school’s Science Bowl Competition happening this weekend, which will hopefully continue Los Alamos High School’s winning streak.

The students have about a month to revel in their accomplishment before moving on to the national competition that takes place in Washington, D.C. in April. 

New Mexico Congressman Ben Ray Luján congratulated the students on their accomplishment.

“This accomplishment is a testament to their hard work and determination.  As a nation, our ability to compete in the science, technology, engineering and math fields is critical to our competitiveness, and I applaud these students for their efforts.  I wish these students the best of luck in the national finals and congratulate Los Alamos High School for again representing New Mexico in the Science Bowl, “Luján said.

According to a press release on the event, the Department of Energy created the National Science Bowl 22 years ago as way to encourage students to do their best in mathematics and science.