Will James Middle School’s Science Team is kind of a big deal. That’s what happens after you win Montana’s regional science bowl three years in a row, advancing to the national competition.
But the group of students getting grilled on topics in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Department of Energy National Science Bowl next month would rather think about establishing a new legacy.
Will James’ teams have never advanced past the first round, but eighth-graders Michael Van Keuren, Tyler Linfesty, John Schallenkamp, Alexander Wood and Lucas Gibb, along with Ethan Levin, a noncompeting member who attends all the team practices, are hoping to change that.
“We want to do better at nationals than any other (Will James) team,” said Van Keuren, a team co-captain.
They’ve certainly put their brainpower where their mouths are. Team members spend about seven hours each weekend studying and going through practice rounds, in addition to extra weeknight sessions and individual studying.
That’s all on top of regular homework and athletics or other clubs the students are involved in.
It helps to have youthful energy.
“Once I’m mentally tired, I just go out and play soccer until I’m physically tired,” Wood, an eighth-grader, said.
But it also requires meticulous planning and scheduling to keep sessions going almost year-round. The team began weekend practices in October, which paid off with their Montana regional victory in March, qualifying them for the national competition.
The event starts with two days of touring the Washington, D.C., area, which gives students the chance to mingle with other teams and discover how others practice and study. On the third day, May 2, round-robin competition begins.
Teams compete over two eight-minute rounds with four students answering questions and one alternate, who can be substituted in between rounds. Depending on the question, it can be answered by the group or only one person.
Later rounds toward the end of competition can be especially taxing after the student’s brains are near-fried.
“There were a few rounds this year that were terrifying,” VanKeuren said.
But if the team does slip up, they don’t worry about it until later.
“You walk it off and go to the next questions,” co-captain Schallenkamp said.
Among topics that the students are interested in pursuing as careers are medicine, meteorology, engineering and, of course, rocket science.
That requires knowledge of concepts, not just trivia.
“I don’t simply throw a bunch of facts at them,” said Dr. Ron Linfesty, Tyler’s father and this year’s team coach. Instead, he works to make sure the students understand the material, to the point that “I ask them to try to teach me.”
He noted that students already have a strong knowledge base from classes at school from which to build.
Tyler Linfesty and Wood were also on last year’s team and have been through the national competition before.
“Just don’t stress about it,” Linfesty advised.
“It’s easier than you think,” Wood said.
But there’s no denying the breadth of questions, coming from fields like physical science, earth and space science, life science, energy, math and — if those categories missed anything — general science.
A common love of science and competition brought the boys together, but what keeps them together is that they have fun during the process of studying and competition. They play games, quizzing each other with 10-second speed rounds during lunch at school, where the banners of past science team championships are displayed.
“The biggest trophy is the memories,” Linfesty said, as the rest of the boys cracked up.
“Ah, that’s a good one,” several said.
No doubt, they’d like to bring both back from Washington, D.C.