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The topic of the debate at Rocky Mountain College on Saturday afternoon could have been ripped from the headlines: "Congress should support Obama's health care policy."

Debate teams from five colleges gathered in small clusters in the Bair Family Student Center to strategize how they would argue either the pros or cons of the topic they had just been handed. Opponents had just 20 minutes to marshal their thoughts before the round began.

Competitors, dressed in suits and ties and armed with laptop computers, brainstormed with their partners, their coaches and other teammates. When it was time, they fanned out to various rooms on campus to make their cases.

About 85 students from RMC, Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., Casper College in Casper, Wyo., Carroll College in Helena and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., took part in the invitational debate tournament. It began Friday morning and wrapped up Saturday night.

Students also participated in 12 individual speech events, including impromptu speaking, extemporaneous speaking, dramatic interpretation and memorized speech.

In the final debate results, two Air Force Academy teams took first and second places and two Rocky teams grabbed third and fourth places.

Throughout the weekend, the students focused issues the Obama administration will soon tackle, including whether the United States should support an independent Palestine and if closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay will do more harm than good.

The students competed in six preliminary rounds, never knowing until the topic was announced what they would be arguing, or what side they would take. In the final rounds, two-member teams debated with only the winners going on. Three people judged each of those rounds.

Rocky's forensics team has 12 members, said Shelby Jo Long-Hammond, RMC assistant professor of communications and RMC debate coach. Members practice twice a week, plus they have to do reading and research on their own, Long-Hammond said.

"Taking part in it teaches so much about communication in general, about public speaking and being about to argue," she said. "The critical-thinking skills you gain are amazing."

Since student debaters don't know the topics until the meet begins, they must be up on a wide variety of current events. And they must be able to persuasively argue for or against any particular position.

The RMC team competes in four or five tournaments in both the fall and spring semesters, she said. In October, team members took first at the Pan Pacific Debate Championship at Hawaii Pacific University.

Allison Corbyn, a junior political-science and history major at Rocky, has competed in debate since high school. Corbyn said she likes the mental challenge of debate and enjoys staying up on current events.

"And it pushes you to be able to talk in front of a lot of people," she said.

Like the other members of the team, Corbyn writes two cases a week on various topics that may come up at a tournament. Then all of the cases are put online for team members to access during a tournament.

Corbyn said she'd rather argue in favor of an issue.

"It's a lot easier on the affirmative because you get to decide where the debate goes," she said.

Terry Rogers, debate coach from Casper College, brought eight students to the tourney. Rogers, a coach for 15 years who also served as one of the weekend's judges, said students who take part in forensics don't just soak up information and data, they must learn to effectively communicate that knowledge.

"It lays the foundation for them to be lifelong learners," Rogers said.

To see these college students dressed professionally and armed with the ability to intelligently argue a range of subjects also spawns faith in the next generation, he said.

"If anybody would come and watch these students debate, it would turn back the perception that the world is going to be handed over to slackers who don't want to do anything," Rogers said. "It's uplifting to see these kids."

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