National Ocean Sciences Bowl Piques Interest

High school students around the country fascinated with marine science and technology

Reprinted with permission from Sea Technology, October 2001.

By Kurt M. Byers

Communications Manager, Alaska Sea Grant College Program, University of Alaska School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences

Not long ago, one of the most commonly desired careers of kids was to be an ocean explorer. Today, the latest Discovery Channel or National Geographic television lineup offers evidence that the mystery and drama of the oceans still capture the imagination—or at least part of the attention span—of young people.

But now, as students move on from high school, it is today's high-tech world of computer technology or Fortune 500 business that attracts many of the best and brightest. A result is that some marine science disciplines need new talent.

Science Bowl Stimulates Awareness

In part to address this challenge, in 1998 the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education (CORE), with support from the National Marine Educators Association, launched the National Ocean Sciences Bowl (NOSB). NOSB brings together teams of high school students from around the United States in a round-robin marine science quiz-bowl-style competition.

This past school year approximately 1,700 students and teachers, representing 264 high schools, competed in 19 regional competitions.

The goal of NOSB is to increase knowledge of the oceans on the part of high school students, their teachers and parents, and raise public understanding of the national investment in ocean-related research.

"Regrettably for students and teachers, there is so little marine science taught in our schools today," said Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., CORE President.

"The National Ocean Sciences Bowl is an academic program that offers students the chance to pursue and test their knowledge of the ocean sciences in a forum that's challenging and fun," he said.

Objectives of NOSB include helping students, teachers, and parents better understand ocean science; exposing teachers to the value and excitement of using the oceans as a tool for disciplinary and interdisciplinary science education; and providing an opportunity for the university oceanographic research community to forge links with pre-college communities.

Students Benefit, Win or Lose

NOSB coach John Fornshell teaches a senior oceanography class at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia. He says regardless of whether a team wins, NOSB enriches the contestants.

"One aspect that I really appreciate about NOSB is that it offers a positive environment and exposure to marine science for our students. It emphasizes teamwork and learning over winning, and teamwork is central to the pursuit of scientific discovery," Fornshell said.

Barbara Kolb teaches a marine ecology class at James River High School in Buchanan, Virginia, and coaches that school's NOSB team, which won first place in this year's regional competition. She believes NOSB has given a much-needed boost to high school science programs and appreciates the academic discipline NOSB requires.

"NOSB is the best thing that's happened in high school marine science. I emphasize solid analytical, quantitative work, the kind of effort you need to invest to publish scientific work. NOSB is tough. It really reinforces the value of intellectual rigor. It's had a profound effect on each one of my students," Kolb said.

Kolb is not alone in citing the virtues of NOSB. Jon Manley is a science teacher with 29 years' experience and coach of the NOSB team at Contoocook Valley Regional High School (Conval) in Peterborough, New Hampshire. His team took second place in the 2001 NOSB.

"I'm always looking for ways to further challenge my students who need more, and help other students who need to be brought out in ways that cannot be done in class. NOSB has become the most effective vehicle I have for affecting the lives of my students," Manley said.

Springboard to College Science

Uncertainty of purpose causes some high school students to forego college and others to leave college before they settle into a stimulating academic niche. NOSB has removed paralyzing uncertainty for some students and has helped give focus to academic futures. Most importantly, NOSB has caused some students who had not planned on going to college to change their minds. Manley keeps close tabs on how his former NOSB team members fare in college, and he has seen how NOSB can make the difference in whether or not a student decides to go to college.

"Amber Carter, our 1999 captain, was not inclined to go to college. But after experiencing NOSB she enrolled at the University of New Hampshire as an oceanography student. Now she's continuing her studies at Keene State College.

"Megan Cahill, known as our 'quiet one,' also did not plan to go to college. But through her NOSB experience she started to recognize her potential and got excited about marine science, and we got her into Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia," Manley said.

Cahill's mother agrees that Manley and the NOSB experience changed her daughter's life. She says her daughter became more adept at answering questions and learned how to delve deeply into issues.

"Megan did not plan on going to college until after Mr. Manley's oceanography class and NOSB. Dalhousie University's marine program attracted her to that school. She just finished her sophomore year and earned three A-pluses and two A's in her most recent semester," Cahill said.

Geoff Shook is another one of Manley's former team members, now a senior at the University of Rhode Island where he's majoring in aquaculture and fishery technology. Even though he grew up inland from the coast, he always had an interest in oceanography.

"Until I took Mr. Manley's oceanography class and participated in NOSB, I never realized how big a field it was and how many career directions it offers. After I graduate, I plan to find a job in aquaculture, work a few years, then enter an oceanography graduate program," Shook said.

Gary Wolfe, coach of the Eau Gallie High School team from Melbourne, Florida, says NOSB has helped many of his former students plot their academic and career paths.

"We've got former team members now at Roger Williams University, University of Rhode Island, Brown University, Florida Institute of Technology and other schools who have directly linked their career goals with their experience in NOSB. Some have concentrated in marine sciences, and all gained a tremendous amount of experience in problem solving and group work by being on our NOSB team," Wolfe said.

Universities, High Schools Benefit

Universities usually cosponsor NOSB regional competitions and get valuable exposure with students on NOSB teams. Charles Penninger was a member of the Berrien County Math and Science Center NOSB team in Michigan. Through NOSB, Penninger was introduced to the University of Michigan, which cosponsors the regional competition through its Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering and Sea Grant program. The contact was the deciding factor in his college choice. He's now a sophomore mechanical engineering student at the Ann Arbor institution.

"I had finally found a place that I was comfortable at. And the independent study that was required for my team to prepare for the NOSB competition improved my study habits. I did well my freshman year, taking two terms of 17 credits in engineering," Penninger said.

It's not only the students who benefit from NOSB. Some coaches also garner rewards beyond the satisfaction of coaching. Virginia Sea Grant has provided a $1,000 scholarship for the coach of the winning regional team to attend the National Marine Educators Conference. Jane Butler, coach of the Grafton High School team, attended the NMEA conference.

"It was just incredible how much I learned at the meeting. I got so much great teaching material at the conference, I had to mail it home. I'm using a lot of it now in my classroom. You just can't get professional development like that anywhere else," Butler said.

NOSB also has yielded another unexpected benefit, reports Conval's Manley. He discovered NOSB can be an effective recruiting tool for new teachers. Two of the last three teachers hired into Conval's science department are mothers of former ocean bowlers.

"Both worked with me as coaches. It was NOSB that drew them in. In these times of teacher shortages, this is very welcome," Manley said.

Preparation Pays Off

Each school follows its own course in preparing for NOSB, from almost no preparation to intense preparation.

In NOSB's first four years, the team from Lexington High School in Lexington, Massachusetts, has taken top honors. Lexington coach Doug Grant attributes his teams' successes to a combination of factors.

"We don't walk on water in Lexington, but there is an excellent attitude toward education—it's cool to do your homework. Our K-12 science curriculum is outstanding, and the high school sticks with the basics. We don't have an oceanography course, but all students must take earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics. So all of our students have a good foundation in science. Our NOSB team trains three hours a week all year and studies everything independently," Grant said.

Another team on the intense end of the preparation spectrum is Port Hope Community School in rural Michigan. This tiny school located on Lake Huron graduated 27 students in 2001. But it won that region's 2001 NOSB competition and finished fifth in the nationals. Coach Elaine Biondo says that preparation and community support are the keys to Port Hope's remarkable success.

"We're the smallest public school in Michigan's Lower Peninsula—but we have a community that supports our students and encourages them every way possible," Biondo said.

Port Hope offers advanced courses in oceanography and earth science to juniors and seniors. Biondo says students spend at least two hours a day in school studying oceanography and other fields of science. In oceanography class they read, answer questions and quiz each other. At least once a week for an hour the students simulate NOSB, following all the rules.

"Our students already are practicing for next year's competition and are taking aim at dethroning Lexington," Biondo said.

Regional Innovations

Each region has flexibility to shape its competitions to suit local situations. In Alaska, NOSB regional coordinator, Judy McDonald, a marine scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Seward Marine Center in Seward, Alaska, has infused a scientist's perspective into the Alaska NOSB competition.

She believes the quiz game is valuable, but does not help students gain writing and public speaking skills necessary to work in the "science business." McDonald also points out that it costs a lot of money to get the teams to Seward from all over the state, and wanted to maximize the bang for the buck. So, in 1999 she added a research project and presentation requirement to the Alaska regional competition. Since then, other regions have begun to incorporate projects, such as South Carolina-Georgia, which requires a research poster be prepared by each team.

McDonald's innovation serves several purposes. Each team must investigate various aspects of an ocean-related current event or issue. This requires that students directly interact with community leaders, local and state industries, federal and state agencies, and university scientists as well as conduct the typical Internet and library research.

Ocean issues are nothing if not complicated and often controversial in a scientific, social and economic sense. The research project drives home to students the fact that answers to problems are rarely straightforward.

"While doing the project, the students put their classroom learning into a real-world context. They have to take often-contradictory information, weigh it, make informed judgements, and check it for accuracy to be able to tell their point of view," McDonald said.

Among others, 2001 NOSB research papers in Alaska include An Analysis of Resurrection Bay and a 50-Year Plan to Improve Our Marine Ecosystem; Wastewater Management for Juneau, Alaska: A Plan for the Future; and The History and Future of Cruise Ship Waste: Modern Perspectives for a Changing Industry.

Each team presents their paper to judges in an auditorium setting complete with audiovisual aids.

"The public speaking part forces students to learn how they can have a voice that people in decision-making positions will listen to. The whole process gives the students life skills that are useful in most professions and for taking active citizenship roles," McDonald said.

The research paper and presentation each count toward the teams' cumulative scores. This means that sometimes the Alaska team that wins the quiz part of the competition is not the team that goes to the national finals, a prospect that provides strong incentive for students to prepare rigorously for all three parts of the competition.

Adam Yeager is an alumnus of the Alaska regional competition, now studying at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to be a high school biology teacher. He said doing the research paper made a real impact.

"That paper was a shocker," Yeager said. "I wrote the 20-page research report for our team, which was on Steller sea lions. I incorrectly capitalized 'sea lion' all through the paper. When I got it back, every single 'sea lion' was crossed out. That woke me up and terrified me before the competition. I wondered, who is this person who would take the time to cross out every single 'sea lion'?"

That person is Susan Sugai, a chemical oceanographer and Sea Grant science director who is the chief project judge for Alaska.

"The project has turned into a big deal in Alaska. Our governor is even using some of the project results to help set policy for the state. Our competition empowers the kids to become involved in marine resource issues and have the powers-that-be listen to them," Sugai said.

In yet another original twist, McDonald established a juried art contest. This component gives team members and all other students in schools that field teams a chance to delve into marine science through artistic expression. Art departments or classrooms in the schools of winning artists are awarded prizes such as computer graphics hardware and digital cameras from Alaska Sea Grant.

Building Bridges

An objective of NOSB is to link high school students and teachers with scientists from university, industry and government milieus. Sugai believes NOSB does that.

"Oceanography and marine science are interdisciplinary and involve hands-on work, not just something you read from a book. Our NOSB competition provides a way for students to interact with us scientists. It puts a human face on scientists. And it's a way to pull under-represented populations into the sciences," Sugai said.

Susan Haynes of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science is one of four regional coordinators in Virginia. She arranged a mentorship at VIMS for Kevin Ford, an NOSB team member from Grafton High School in Grafton, Virginia.

During his mentorship, Ford learned a series of sophisticated molecular genetic techniques, including isolation of genomic DNA. Using the techniques, Ford developed a relatively rapid way to identify tuna species. His procedures allow specific identification of fillets as well as eggs and larvae that are often difficult to discriminate. Ford recently was accepted as an undergraduate at the University of California San Diego where he will prepare for a graduate program in marine science.

And Ford wasn't the only Virginia NOSB squad member who got some real-world, hands-on marine science experience, according to Haynes.

"In 1999, our dean donated funds to provide the winning team from James River High School with a trip aboard our largest research vessel. The kids worked shoulder to shoulder with several of our ichthyologists on a shark longlining cruise. The students baited lines, measured and tagged 38 sand bar shark pups, and learned about side-scan sonar," Haynes said.

Coaches, as well as students, make valuable contacts with practicing scientists through NOSB. Haynes says that one coach has formed a working relationship with a VIMS scientist through involvement as an NOSB moderator and speaker.

"It's gratifying to see this teacher develop a first-name rapport with one of our faculty. It's just the kind of connection we are hoping to achieve with NOSB," Haynes said.

Many of the coaches agree that NOSB gets parents involved and excited, just as athletics do. Phyllis Shoemaker, mother of a NOSB team member from Seward High School in Alaska, recognizes a fundamental value of NOSB.

"NOSB involves kids in academic activities that they would not otherwise participate in. They don't have to be in the top of their class to do well. It gives them all an idea of what real science is about. Even if they don't become scientists they will know what it takes for scientists to reach conclusions and how to interpret science information in their everyday life," Shoemaker said.

Prizes Serve Educational Function

CORE President Lautenbacher points out that NOSB prizes emphasize the educational thrust of the program and the hands-on aspect of marine science.

"We like to get the participants 'wet' by providing opportunities such as field trips to different marine environments, behind-the-scenes tours at aquaria and laboratories, and working with scientists at our premier oceanographic institutions," Lautenbacher said.

Regional prizes include college scholarships, tuition waivers, cruises on research vessels, scientific equipment, marine science books, cash, trophies, and other awards. The top regional teams get trips to the national finals.

The top four national finishers are awarded domestic and international excursions that include marine science and technology field experiences.Sponsored by the Volvo Ocean Adventure, the 2001 champions from Lexington High School visited the Southampton Oceanography Centre in England. They spent several days working with scientists and conducted research aboard a research vessel.

The team went on to Gothenburg, Sweden, where they sailed aboard a Volvo 60 racing yacht and spent a day with Volvo engineers who provided a behind-the-scenes tour of the Volvo manufacturing plant.

The second-place finisher, Contoocook Valley Regional High School, took a cruise sponsored by Royal Caribbean International aboard its Explorer of the Seas. The students and their coach joined scientists to conduct experiments using state-of-the-art technology in the ship's atmospheric and oceanographic laboratories. They also participated in educational activities onboard.

The third-place team, Cranston High School West of Cranston, Rhode Island, visited the University of Southern California's Wrigley Institute campus on Catalina Island where they helped scientists tag fish, kayaked, and snorkeled.

Irmo High School of Columbia, South Carolina, the fourth-place team, visited the Great Lakes Field Station in Muskegon, Michigan, where they cruised on the R/V Shenehon and took part in field sampling on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The National Ocean Sciences Bowl receives financial support from the Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, Minerals Management Service, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research, Oceanographer of the Navy, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Industry and nonprofit group support in 2001 comes from Volvo Ocean Adventure, Royal Caribbean International, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Center for Marine Conservation, Anteon Corporation, and the James D. Watkins Fund.

Many other industry, government and academic entities and private individuals provide funding and in-kind support for the regional competitions.

For more information about NOSB, visit the NOSB website, or contact Sarah Schoedinger at (202) 332-0063 extension 221, e-mail

Kurt Byers is communications manager for the Alaska Sea Grant College Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and is past president of the Alaska Natural Resource and Outdoor Education Association. He has worked 16 years with the Michigan and Alaska Sea Grant programs, and 10 years in private business. He has a bachelor of science degree in natural resources/environmental communication from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, Ann Arbor.