Diary of a National Ocean Sciences Bowl coach

Notes from the field by Sunny Rice, Petersburg Marine Advisory Agent

October 28, 2016

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Alaska map with teams flagged

Petersburg, AlaskaPetersburg, Alaska—Each year, Alaska holds a regional ocean sciences competition as part of the National Ocean Sciences Bowl (NOSB), a nationwide academic contest for high school students with a focus on marine and coastal environments. A unique aspect of the Alaska regional NOSB is a research project, in which teams of four or five students prepare a research paper on an assigned topic. The paper is submitted in December and the team gives an oral presentation at the competition in February. I have co-coached the Petersburg NOSB team every year since 2009.

August 2015

All summer, I’ve been emailing 10 Petersburg High School kids various news stories and interesting facts about ocean sciences in preparation for the February 2016 National Ocean Sciences Bowl competition in Seward, Alaska. Alaska’s version of the competition is called the “Tsunami Bowl.” I coach the PHS team along with Joni Johnson, who was the biology teacher until this year. When we ran into each other mid-month, we made plans for our first team meeting with the kids who said they were interested last spring. We decided that this is the year we will be really organized in covering all the content material they need to compete in the quiz bowl!

September 3, 2015

Our first practice. Looks like we’ll have 10 students this year, although not the same 10 kids we identified last spring. One boy has decided to focus on swimming and we don’t know why another didn’t show up. A few of the girls have convinced a friend to join, though, and we have three new sophomore boys. Each team can have a maximum of five students, so we’ll need to lead two groups through the process of writing a 15-page research paper, preparing a 20-minute presentation on the paper, and getting ready for the quiz bowl. Having this many kids makes us happy and overwhelmed at the same time. It is so much more relaxing to be able to focus on one team, but of course we want as many students as possible to get the benefits of learning about our oceans. So, two teams it will be. We’re not 100 percent sure who will go on which team, but it is likely we’ll have two senior boys and three sophomore girls on one team, and one new junior girl and four sophomore boys on the second team. Like most teams in the Alaska competition, the students exercise their creativity in choosing their own team names—in this case “Ocean Motion” and the “Suspiciously Swanky Scyphozoa.”

September 16, 2015

Coaxing busy high school kids to write a group research paper outside of all their additional schoolwork is one of the hardest parts of coaching a NOSB team. A broad research topic is assigned by the Tsunami Bowl organizers each year, and then each school can take it in their own direction. This year’s topic is “resiliency in your community.” Today we brainstorm possibilities, coming up with a wide range of ideas that include responding to a mining disaster in our nearby Stikine River, bouncing back economically from a failed salmon run (our town is highly commercial-fishery focused), storm surges, and tsunamis. We’ll let them do some preliminary research for a few days, but want to decide soon so we can try to get the paper done early and avoid the last-minute scramble to get it written before the due date.

October 1, 2015

I’m back from a week’s vacation and the teams have finally decided on their paper topics! Joni tells me there was some debate within the older team about whether to look at resiliency in terms of a tsunami or in terms of mining up the Stikine River. There are some hard feelings, but we know this too will pass. The younger team is squarely in the camp of looking at what a market crash for seafood might mean for the town. Thank goodness that is done—now we can really get down to work.

October 18, 2015

We made tamales all day today, to sell to raise funds for our travel. Joni has spent the past several days getting the chicken ready, not to mention lining up donations of most of the food. We gather in the school culinary arts room and mix, stuff, roll, and steam tamales for six hours. Parents and siblings join in as well. Fundraising is a big part of all extracurricular activities in Petersburg—the price of life on a remote island, since travel is so costly. 

October 28, 2015

I found out today that Jeff Dillon from the Alaska SeaLife Center is coming to town to meet with one of our elementary school teachers. I described the kids’ chosen topics to him, to see if he might provide any insight into either of them. Turns out he knows quite a bit about the tsunamis that hit Seward during the 1963 earthquake—perfect! That should provide a nice comparison community for the older group. 

November 10, 2015

Keith Criddle, a University of Alaska fisheries economics professor, came to Petersburg today to talk to the younger students and community about economic resiliency. He answered questions with the students for at least an hour, explaining about issues of commercial fisheries competition with farmed salmon, as well as the concept of diversification—not just within fisheries but in timber, tourism, and mining. A student from a fishing family seems to really connect with this material and agrees to write that section of the paper for the younger group. 

November 28, 2015 (Saturday)

The papers are due on December 1 and we are spending all day today in the library getting them together. By the end of the day everyone is exhausted, but we have two complete papers, including figures and citations, ready to be turned in next week. Whew—the hardest part is over. Now on to the fun stuff—I love working with the students on their oral presentations.

December 10, 2015

students at quiz bowlConferring at the actual competition in Seward. Left to right: Gabe Torresz, Anders Christensen, Charlie Christensen, and Joey Giesbrecht of the Suspiciously Swanky Scyphozoa. Click image for larger version [1.8 MB].

With the paper done it is also time to shift our focus toward learning ocean science facts for the quiz bowl portion of the competition. Joni and I each have some lectures we’ve put together, and we ask the students to do their own research for mini-presentations they give, to teach the rest of the kids. Joni has been making up quizzes, based on material we’ve covered in lectures, for them to take at the start of every practice to help make sure they retain the information. We also ask them to study on their own from oceanography textbooks we’ve provided—with limited success, of course.

January 21, 2016

For today’s practice, Jeff Meucci with the Alaska Department of Fish of Game comes to talk to the younger team. Jeff is a dive technician who knows a lot about the geoduck and sea cucumber fisheries. He brings in some sample sea cucumber products the local divers have been developing for the kids to check out. Afterward, we talk about how they can incorporate this information into their presentation. Jeff agrees to share some of his pictures with us to use in our slides. So nice of him to spend his time with them!

February 9, 2016

We coaches are getting a little bit impatient as time is getting short and the presentations are still fairly rough. Never mind all the content we still want to cover and buzzer practice we need. Still, we want the kids to represent themselves well, so we walk through the presentation with each team twice at practice today, stopping them to make changes to the slides and scripts along the way. Content will have to wait for another day.

February 18, 2016

Tonight the kids will make their presentations to the residents of Petersburg. We are happy to see 40 people file into the library community room. This is nerve-racking for Joni and me, as we want the parents and community to value not just the work the kids have done, but the Tsunami Bowl and marine science in general.

We start the evening with two quiz bowl rounds so the parents and citizens, and most importantly, little brothers and sisters (future recruits!) can get a glimpse of what will happen at the competition. The “volunteers” we grab from the audience to compete against our team can immediately feel the tension created by the buzzer, timer-clock, and scoreboard. I cheer inside when one of the volunteers correctly answers “North Pacific Fishery Management Council” to one question. I want the kids to win, of course, but I don’t want it to be too lopsided.

Now it is time for the kids to really feel the tension as they give their presentations to a real audience for the first time. This year’s topic is very easy for the community to relate to, so the questions are good. The talk on tsunamis is of great interest to the audience, as quite a bit of misinformation has been floating around and very little accurate information, all combined with the earthquake and tsunami evacuation we experienced a few years back.

February 23, 2016

Our last official practice before we leave for Seward and there’s a lot of energy in the room. We start with buzzer practice, using old and relatively easy questions to build confidence and encourage them to work on buzzer speed and game strategy. We pass on a few more items of game strategy: if you are way behind, you can start making more educated guesses, and pay attention to the clock, especially at the end.

Then we run over presentations, this time with each team listening to the other and coming up with questions they might be asked in Seward. I resist the urge to make a few more minor tweaks to the content—it’s too late and they need to focus on delivery.

Petersburg NOSB students at airport Heading for Seward. Click image for larger version [640 x 426 px].

February 25, 2016

We’re getting ready to board the plane from Petersburg to Anchorage. The big day is finally here and the kids (and the coaches) are understandably excited. It will be the only school-based travel this year for some of the kids, and we are going a long way from home. As the students trickle into the airport, they compare seat numbers and suitcase sizes. Joni makes sure they all have their paperwork signed for the competition. A few minutes later, Julia’s mom arrives with individually packaged baggies of homemade cookies shaped like sea stars for each of us. “Helen, you are a star” reads the note taped to one—they are all personalized. So sweet!

After a two-and-a-half hour flight and three hour drive, we finally arrive in Seward. As we check in for the competition, we are thrilled to find out that our older team got first place on the paper and the younger group got eighth (out of 19 teams)—a great showing for both groups.

February 26, 2016

Petersburg team at ROV challengeCharlie Christensen, Anders Christensen, Gabe Torresz and Joey Giesbrecht. Click image for larger version [2 MB].

Today both teams will give their presentations. A panel of five judges listens to each talk and asks questions to come up with a total score. The Suspiciously Swanky Scyphozoa are on the morning schedule, and Ocean Motion will talk in the afternoon. After some computer glitches, the younger guys do a great job covering their relatively short presentation. Our most stage-shy kid is actually grabbing the microphone to answer questions! Joni and I are laughing with glee as we watch the four boys confer to come up with answers to the judges’ questions. It is so much fun to watch the progression of a student’s confidence and understanding as the months go by.

During the midday break, members of the Suspiciously Swanky Scyphozoa participate in an ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) activity at the school pool while the older kids spend time at the SeaLife Center learning about the impacts of sea ice reduction on walruses. Afterward, Joni and I go down to the lower room to watch the seabirds dive—a welcome lull in all the energy and action and my favorite thing about the center.

Ocean Motion team presentationTeam Ocean Motion gives its presentation. Click image for larger version [2 MB].

Ocean Motion also does a great job on their presentation—answering judge and audience questions smoothly. They come up with the cute idea of wearing Xtratuf® rubber boots with their dress clothes. It is always fun to see what the other teams choose to research, as well. The Anchorage team is very impressive with their chemistry knowledge as they talk about bioremediation for oil spills, and the Juneau team piques our teams’ interest as they examine the idea of a pollock fishery in Southeast Alaska.

We’re so happy to be done with both presentations by Friday night. A few teams still have to present tomorrow, but we get to shift our focus to getting ready for the quiz bowl tomorrow afternoon.

February 27, 2016

First place on the project! We find out late today that our older team won first place in the presentation, which combined with their paper score gives them first place overall on the project. We are so proud. The younger kids get 13th on the presentation and do a great job during the first round robin of the quiz bowl. Quiz bowl rounds consist of multiple choice questions that the students buzz in to answer. They also have short answer bonus questions and more in-depth team challenge questions that count toward their total score for a round. One student is particularly excited when there is a challenge question about bulbous bows, something his dad has been wanting to add to their boat for several years.

February 28, 2016

Today is the final day of the competition. Our teams are seeded seventh and eighth after the quizzing yesterday. After many hard-fought matches, that is where we end up in the final rankings as well. Joni and I are continually discussing whether we should spend less energy on the paper and presentation and more on preparing for the quiz bowl, since that is what really determines which team wins and goes on to the national competition. We both feel that the kids learn more important life skills on the research project, though. After they are all done, we ask the older team for their opinion, and most seem to feel that the project is more important. That is very nice to know.

A drive to Anchorage, a trip to the mall (shopping is a big deal when you live on an island of 3,000 people), a viewing of Star Wars in 3-D and our final day of NOSB is finished. Tomorrow we’ll fly home and I won’t be seeing this great group of kids, or my friend Joni, as much. It is a relief to be done, but I’ll also miss them—until next year! 

Petersburg NOSB students Petersburg Ocean Motion: Tucker Hagerman, Chauncy Sandhofer, Julia Murph, Marissa Nilsen and Helen Martin, with coaches Sunny Rice and Joni Johnson. Click image for larger version [1.5 MB].

Alaska Sea Grant is a statewide marine research, education, and outreach program, and is a partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agents provide assistance that helps Alaskans wisely use, conserve, and enjoy marine and coastal resources.