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Brainpower on Display

By Hailey Heinz
Journal Staff Writer
          Even for the nation's top science whizzes, having first lady Michelle Obama ask them questions was a little intimidating.
        "For me it was actually really nerve-wracking," said Jason Hou, a seventh-grader and member of Albuquerque Academy's middle-school Science Bowl team. "I found it a lot harder to concentrate when you have the first lady reading the question."
        Academy's middle-school team beat out 36 other regional champs from around the nation Monday to win the top prize at the Department of Energy's annual Science Bowl. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, along with the first lady, congratulated the winners, and Obama read the bonus questions in the final round of the competition held at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
        The National Science Bowl is the only science competition sponsored by a federal agency, and was started for high school students in 1991. A middle-school competition was added in 2002.
        Along with Hou, teammates Eric Li, Andy Chen and Ben Zolyomi have been studying all year for the competition, which is a Jeopardy-style contest that challenges teams to buzz in and answer science questions quickly.
        Li, an eighth-grader and the team captain, said the team decided to divide up their studying, with each student becoming an expert in a certain area. Li, who hopes to become a doctor, focused on biology and studied mainly by reading textbooks and science journals. Other teammates also studied using questions from past Science Bowls, looking up any concepts they didn't know.
        "The questions are about a really vast, wide variety of scientific knowledge, so it really helps to have a large knowledge base," Li said Monday during a telephone interview from Washington.
        The middle-school teams competed all weekend and were narrowed down to two top teams that squared off Monday. Academy faced Gale Ranch Middle School from San Ramon, Calif., in the championship. Li said the group was well-prepared, but the questions were tough.
        "Most of the time we were pretty prepared; there were definitely a few questions that stumped us, though — there were some terms we had never heard of," Li said.
        The first lady asked 17 bonus questions of the two finalist teams. Her questions covered multiple areas of science, including potential functions of the appendix, what the letters and numbers stand for in the H1N1 flu virus, the protein content of blood and studies on the San Andreas fault in California.
        Afterward she joked that she had to study just to read the questions correctly.
        Barbara Gilbert, an Academy science teacher who coached the teens, said Li's leadership was a key part of what brought this year's team all the way.
        "Eric Li has an incredible sense of maturity, and he's very calm," she said, adding that those qualities are especially important during the bonus round when the entire team has a short time to collaborate before the captain gives a final answer.
        "The captain has to be able to sort information and stay clear-headed at all times," Gilbert said. "Together with the fact that he is incredibly mature, he also is a wealth of information and is incredibly fast."
        After the competition, Obama told the winners they are important to the country's future.
        "We want young people energized in the way that you all are, because we know that American brainpower in science and math has always driven this country's prosperity," she said after the winning teams received their trophies. "We are going to need you."
        The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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