FORT COLLINS, Colo. (CBS4) – A team of 8th graders from Preston Middle School in Fort Collins won top honors at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Science Bowl last week. Preston’s group beat a team from Jonas Clarke Middle School in Lexington, Massachusetts, in the finals. Both teams received $2,500 for their school’s science department in what was the first-ever Science Bowl conducted virtually.

“The virtual competition format was a game changer for us,” said the team’s coach, Logan Burke.

Ever since the first National Science Bowl in 1991, students have been flown out to Washington, D.C., to compete head-to-head and in person. The coronavirus pandemic put a halt to that. This year, teams were judged and scored while performing on their own via video conference.

The Preston Middle School team on a Zoom conference call as part of the 2020 National Science Bowl. Four judges are in the bottom frames.

The Preston Middle School team on a Zoom conference call as part of the 2020 National Science Bowl. Four judges are in the bottom frames. (credit: U.S. Department of Energy)

Burke said the Zoom call in Friday’s final round actually cut out during the last question, but by the time the connection was re-established, Preston’s number crunchers knew victory was at hand and they were already celebrating.

“It’s all based on how much the kids want it,” Burke told CBS4. “I’m there to facilitate, to help them practice logistics and teamwork. This year the kids were committed. I feel like I did a little bit of pushing, but it was all them.”

Sending her old college textbooks home with the kids didn’t hurt, she added.

The team was presented problems in several categories — physical science (i.e., chemistry and physics), life sciences, earth and space sciences, energy and math. Communication was a key. Burke explained how teams were allowed only 20 seconds to converse about a bonus question, and that’s with the lag time of a virtual conference. So clarity and brevity were tools worth sharpening.

Leading up to the competition, each member of the Preston team chose a specialty and quizzed the rest of the crew on it.

The Preston Middle School team (clockwise from bottom left): Logan Bowers, Colin Magelky, Jackson Dryg, Quentin Perez-Wahl, and Kary Fang. (credit: U.S. Department of Energy)

Science Bowl is an extracurriculur activity and all practices occurred after school — including when there was no one physically at school. Preston closed its doors March 13, as most Colorado public schools did in response to the spread of COVID-19. The Science Bowl team continued learning remotely and then practicing remotely. When the DOE decided on a virtual event, Preston’s crew was ready.

Three of Preston’s five 2020 team members — Dryg, Magelky, and Fang — had qualified for nationals last year and made the trip to Washington.

Burke, a 7th grade science teacher at Preston, has coached the team for six years.

Dougherty Valley High School of San Ramon, California, defeated Mira Loma High School from Sacramento to win the high school division.

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