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MSMS takes victory at Regional Science Bowl

January 28, 2013

Mississippi School for Math and Science students pose with their first-place trophy at the Mississippi Regional Science Bowl Friday at Mississippi University for Women. The team, one of two from MSMS, will travel to the National Science Bowl in Washington D.C. in April. From left to right: Benny Zhang, Matthew Steed, Wilhelm Liano, Shawn Gompa and Egan Peltan. (Photo by Steven Nalley, SDN)

In July 2011, Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow published studies showing that, in the modern age of smart phones, people don’t memorize information to the extent they once did.

Rather, the studies found that people forget information they believe they can find on the Internet and instead remember where on the Internet this information can be found. Shawn Gompa, a member of one of two teams the Mississippi School for Math and Science sent to the Mississippi Regional Science Bowl, is an exception. He can’t consult the Internet during a match; he has to remember what he found there beforehand.

“We would have tons of practices, (and) before each practice, I would always cycle through Wikipedia, go to a biological article, and then any word I was unfamiliar with that (had a link), I would click it and learn as much about it as I could,” Gompa said. “I would keep doing that until I could build up my knowledge to the point that I could be confident, and then, after every practice, I would get back on Wikipedia.”

Gompa and his teammates took first place at the Regional Science Bowl Friday at Mississippi University for Women, earning a spot in the National Science Bowl April 25-29 in Washington, D.C.

Dionne Fortenberry, science bowl organizer and MUW Department of Science and Mathematics chair, said the competition went well, with multiple teams posting high scores and four new teams from three new schools joining the competition. Concurrently, MUW hosted a Science Olympiad exam where students competed for MUW scholarships, with $1,000 for the winner and $500 for the top runner-up.

“One of our scholarship recipients was from one of the brand new teams, Raymond High School, so I’m very happy about that,” Fortenberry said. “I always like to have new schools come and participate. The students seemed to have a really good time. If we can get some new schools every year, I will be very happy.”

The winning MSMS team included Gompa, Benny Zhang, Matthew Steed, Wilhelm Liano and Egan Peltan. Zhang said he has been to the National Science Bowl before, and while he enjoyed visiting national monuments and the Smithsonian museums, the competition was stiff. More than half the teams there had at least one member who had qualified for the USA Mathematical Olympiad, he said.

That makes the competition incredibly fierce, especially in math, chemistry, physics (and) many of the hardest sciences,” Zhang said. “We lost so many of our beginning games before we started picking up near the end. You’ll see some of the smartest people you’ll ever meet there.”

Gompa said he, too, has reached the National Science Bowl before, but at the middle school level. He said his competitors were tough, but the friendships he forged with them still last to this day.

“It’s one of the most amazing experiences you can have,” Gompa said. “You meet people from all over the nation, and I’m Facebook friends with a lot of them.”

Gompa said the education background MSMS offers has been indispensable in competition, because each MSMS team member carries deep and diverse knowledge. Zhang said team members specialize in certain subjects, but only to an extent.

“Each of us don’t always specialize in one thing. We usually take about two subjects each,” Zhang said. “Among the five of us, we cover pretty much all the subjects at least twice. With all the subjects, we at least have a backup for each one.”

That said, MUW may house MSMS on its campus, but Zhang said there is no such thing as a home field advantage in a science bowl. In fact, he said, it can feel like it has the opposite effect: team members run the risk of forgetting a fact in front of the teacher who taught them that fact.

“Honestly, I think it really adds to the tension, because now you have our school administrator ... all our teachers ... some of our friends ... you have all these people showing up to watch us,” Zhang said.

Fortenberry said this is the 12th year that MUW has hosted the Mississippi Regional Science Bowl, and while the competition can be fun, when students practice for it, they are preparing for more than a competition. She said they are also preparing for college.

“I think that any time you’re forced to recall information, that can only help you, because it exercises your mind,” Fortenberry said. “If you’re going to college, especially if you’re going to college in math and science, you need all the exercise you can get ... because it’s very rigorous once you get on a college campus.”

MSMS team member Egan Peltan said he had never competed in a science bowl before this year, so the difficulty curve has been extreme. Like his teammates, he said Wikipedia has proven helpful, and his team has proven that the advent of the Internet does not have to mean reduced retention and recall.

“I don’t really think it’s a lost art,” Peltan said. “I would never even call it an art to begin with.”

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