April 30, 2014

See National Ocean Sciences Bowl put the M (for “marine”) in STEMM

Washington Sea Grant

This weekend, a white-knuckle national competition will unfold at University of Washington’s Fishery Sciences Building, centering on such esoteric subjects as estuarine turbidity maximums and deep-diving seals’ secret for avoiding nitrogen narcosis. Teams of oceanographically precocious high school students will jet in from around the country for a shot at the national title, and the chance to meet top marine scientists and network with potential future colleagues.

For the first time, UW’s College of the Environment and Washington Sea Grant will host the Super Bowl of high school marine studies, the National Ocean Sciences Bowl.

The 20 visiting teams have won regional tournaments ranging from Florida’s Spoonbill Bowl to the Alaskan Tsunami Bowl. At the UW they’ll face the aptonymous winner of Washington state’s Orca Bowl, the Ocean Research College Academy (yes, ORCA), a college-credit high school program based at Everett Community College.

The public is welcome to attend the round-robin and double-elimination contests that begin on Saturday morning, May 3, and finish at midday Sunday. You can warm up with a sample quiz, but be warned: The questions here tend to be easier than those that will likely be asked at the bowl.

Students writing at table

Melissa Luna

Students compete in March at the regional Orca Bowl. This Ocean Research College Academy team will represent Washington this weekend at the national event.

The theme of this year’s bowl is ocean acidification, which will be the focus of quiz questions and science policy presentations required of each team. Volunteers include dozens of UW students, faculty and staff in oceanography, fisheries and marine affairs.

This week’s tournament marks the 17th year of the national competition, but it might not have happened at all if not for Google’s ex-CEO Eric Schmidt. Wracked by budget cuts and sequestration, the federal agencies that previously provided core funding pulled back this time. Schmidt and his wife Wendy stepped in to fill the gap this year, but the National Ocean Sciences Bowl program must now fundraise to keep going.

people in fish costumes

Judging teams typically wear costumes. At the 2013 regional event UW oceanographer Fritz Stahr, in orange, and other judges dressed as characters from the movie “Finding Nemo.”

The bowl has reached this pass just as a clamor is rising from business, government and academe for more and better STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – studies in the schools. At the same time, marine challenges such as ocean acidification, overfishing and climate-induced sea-level rise are gaining new urgency.

These challenges raise another one:  how to instill the passion, curiosity and rigor that science demands in a world of instant gratification and endless distractions? As it does every year, the National Ocean Sciences Bowl offers one answer: by injecting the excitement of competition and the reassurance of comradeship. Or, as Maile Sullivan, the Washington Sea Grant staffer who’s coordinated the bowls, says, “Let’s make it fun!”

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For more information, contact Washington Sea Grant education specialist Maile Sullivan at 206-543-2822 or orcabowl@uw.edu.

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