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Scholars with Competitive Edge

Student athletes can find many ways to pursue the thrill of competition. But those looking for a challenge of the more cerebral nature are also finding ways to compete, and let their academic achievements shine.

Not only do these competitions boost confidence and refine skills, they can help when it comes time to apply to college. Family Times took a closer look at three academic competitions popular with local students: MathCounts, WCNY’s TV game series Double Down, and the Greater Syracuse Scholastic Science Fair at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology (MOST). (All students quoted are referred to by their current grade level, although interviews were conducted in the last academic year.)

Added Benefits

“I always knew I was really good at math; I always had a leg up on my classmates,” says Larissa Knodel, a ninth grader at the Syracuse Academy of Science Charter School (SASCS). She was a member of the school’s MathCounts team last year, which put her skills, and bravado, to the test.

MathCounts is a national competition program that promotes math achievement at the middle school level. The program was established nearly 30 years ago; it has chapters in every U.S. state and territory. Competitions are held at the state, regional and national level. SASCS has had a MathCounts team since 2006.

Serkan Demiray, adviser for the SASCS team and a teacher at the school, approaches the competition as an after-school club. All sixth, seventh and eighth graders are welcome to join. But the club is narrowed down through testing, and only four are needed for competition. Participants commit to 19 weeks of study sessions, including practice on the weekends. “It’s quite a commitment,” Demiray says. “And it’s a learning process all the way.”

That process is what appealed to Dalton Houde, also a ninth grader. Houde says his attitude about academic success solidified when he was in fourth grade. His mother was studying for a college degree at the time, and he was inspired by her determination. “I decided then that I wanted to become a doctor,” he recalls.

Extracurricular activities such as the MathCounts team encourage the application of knowledge in a way Houde, who transferred to SASC last year, enjoys. “That’s what I wanted,” he says, “an environment that encouraged learning.”

The SASCS team took first place in the local MathCounts competition at the Lockheed Martin campus in Liverpool in February, and three team members received individual awards. Teams from North Syracuse Junior High School, Onondaga Hill Middle School, Manlius Pebble Hill School, H.W. Smith School, Fulton Junior High School and Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse also competed. The SASCS team went on to the state level competition at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy a month later.

Team member Madghi Hill admits, “This requires lots of extra time. But if I don’t want to do something, I don’t do it. This is a way to spend time with my classmates, and it’s very competitive. It is really tough at the state level: one slip-up, and that’s it. But it was still a big accomplishment to get that far.”

Demiray says the competition draws from the statewide middle school math curriculums, but pushes students, or “Mathletes,” as they are called, to go beyond—up to high school-level algebra.

“As the weeks of preparation progressed, I could see how their understanding of the material increased,” Demiray adds. “After winning the local competition, their expectations increased; not just for what the team could accomplish, but for themselves. Their hopes and ideas for the future are changing. They see the benefits of hard work.”

For Knodel, the team has also given her an opportunity to make a personal mark. “I have two brothers and they get all the attention,” she says. Like Houde, she plans a future in medicine, specifically with Doctors Without Borders.

The SASCS team depends on parental support. “They are very involved and helped us create that team environment,” Demiray says. “The parents participated in all of our traveling and activities, and we let them know at every step what the students would be doing.”

Asked if he felt any regret about giving so much free time to the team, Houde says, “Nah. . .  It was a lot of work and it was hard, but it is better to be challenged.”

Influential Hypotheses

The Greater Syracuse Scholastic Science Fair is a staple of the local academic calendar. Open to students in grades 5 through 12, the event has encouraged self-directed learning for 31 years.

Peter Plumley, director of the fair, and exhibits project manager for the MOST in Syracuse, says students from 125 local schools participate in the fair, but the number of participants has been declining. Currently, only 130 to 140 students, selected from their own school fairs, participate annually out of a possible 200,000 students in five Central New York counties.

Plumley, father of two teenagers and an associate professor at Syracuse University’s L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, wants to turn that around. “Kids are doing fewer activities that promote self-exploration,” he says. “Fewer kids have hobbies; it’s all about the electronic devices. We’re really fighting a cultural battle here.”

But science fairs, Plumley says, encourage students to take an interest and run with it. He points out that science has a link to basically everything in modern society. Students can approach a project from most any field, from psychology to design.

“There is no limit to what these kids can do when something is their idea,” he says.

Parameters for local fairs are established by the International Science and Engineering Fair, a program of Society for Science & the Public (Intel ISEF)—the umbrella organization for science fairs all over the world.

The MOST directs students to appropriate mentors if they wish. Plumley says teachers don’t always have the time to encourage participation. “Parents are the primary support systems,” he says.

Hannah Valentino, 15, a home-schooled participant who won second place overall and several individual honors, not only has support at home: She has experts. Her project, “Sedimentary Varve Record of Climate Change and the Last Deglaciation of Central New York,” was inspired by her parents’ work as geologists. “My father suggested the idea, and I found it intriguing.”

Plumley says students like Valentino often see benefits from their work long after the fair. “When it comes time to apply to colleges, independent research—like the kind done by science fair participants—distinguishes you,” he says. “It’s not just a question on a college application; it’s preparation for a program of study. You elevate yourself.”

The awards aren’t bad, either. Participants can qualify for tuition scholarships, cash prizes and a trip to the international fair, which was held in San Jose, Calif., in May. Local awards are provided by longtime sponsor Lockheed Martin.

Josh Nubla, who graduated from East Syracuse-Minoa High School in June, took top honors in the local competition with his project, “The Sweet Science: The Making of Sugar.” He and Valentino traveled to San Jose last spring.

“But the real value,” says Plumley, “is that students who investigate something, then collect their own data, never, ever forget it.”

Valentino agrees, adding that participants also learn how their findings contribute to a larger body of knowledge. “I gained knowledge of something I didn’t know, and most importantly I told other people about what I learned. Knowledge isn’t supposed to be kept locked up in someone’s mind. It’s supposed to be learned and then shared.”

“(Competing) also forces you to use logical thinking and gives you experience with presenting and public speaking,” says Valentino, who plans to enter the 2011 fair and expand on her research.

Nubla, now a freshman at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, says the research skills he developed while doing his project are directly applicable to his career goals. “My plans in the future are to continue my research, which is now moving toward finding a way to stop the production of acrylamide, a cancer-causing toxin not normally found in foods, and amino acid deficiency by reducing the amount of browning in foods by substituting non-essential amino acids.”

Nubla hopes other students take advantage of the opportunity. “It is important to have these outlets so students can understand that there are always other people just as ambitious as they are,” says Nubla.

Just the Facts

While MathCounts and the science fair are specific in terms of the academic skills they encourage, WCNY-Channel 24’s Double Down draws students who are more liberal arts-minded. In the game-show styled competition, students answer questions from all academic areas, sports and current events. (WCNY will begin broadcasting its sixth season of Double Down on Nov. 7.)

Producer Nick Bennett says the merger of entertainment and academics is the perfect fit for WCNY’s overall mission.  “We’re giving academic competitors a chance to shine. And kids like the format. It’s a fast-paced show but it’s about the knowledge, not just how quickly students can respond.”

Two episodes are filmed each week, and for some competitors, it’s not the questions that stump them, it’s the experience of being on television. “They get excited about it,” says WCNY public relations director Caitlin Pompo. “But they usually get over any nervousness by the end of the first round.”

Pompo says host Bill Baker has an easy rapport with the students, which helps them adjust quickly.

Baker, a former French teacher, says when the idea for Double Down was suggested at a staff meeting six years ago, he immediately wanted to get involved. “I really never lost the feeling that in my work as a broadcaster, I’m still a little bit of a teacher.”

Thirty-two schools from nine counties participated in Double Down last year—including one team comprised of home-schooled students. Taping takes place from mid-October through December, and the episodes are broadcast from November through February. The questions, culled from a variety of sources, are largely based on New York State Regents’ requirements. About 1,600 questions are needed each season.

Success with Double Down requires participation as an individual and as a team. Baker, who has been with WCNY since 2001, says the variety of skills being applied can have far-reaching influence. “Some schools use us as a way to prepare for other academic challenges,” he says. “There’s the academic side, but the students also develop poise to perform under pressure. You have to be able to think quickly.”

While teams are given a guide on preparing, there is a lot of variation. “Each school has a roster of five, but only three participate on the show, leaving two alternates,” Bennett says. “The schools decide how to use their team members and how best to prepare. Most of the participants are high school juniors and seniors.”

Baker, father of three grown children, adds that the “typical” Double Down participant is not a bookworm but a student who is involved in many different aspects of school and community. “It’s not uncommon that the kids participating in Double Down are captains of their baseball team, or the lead trumpet player in the school band,” he says.

West Genesee High School’s Double Down team, last season’s champions, includes best friends Heitham Wady and Tyler Mattis, who certainly fit the description of well-rounded. Before graduating in June, Wady was a varsity wrestler and goalie for the school’s lacrosse team. Mattis played soccer. Teammate Julia Calagiovanni, who recruited the two friends, was valedictorian of West Genesee’s class of 2010, while Wady was salutatorian. Jenny Smacher, a senior who is expected to return to the team this year, is a high honor student and an All-State trombonist.

Wady, who is attending New York University as a pre-med/biology major this fall, says it was the competitive aspect of the game show that appealed to him and Mattis. “We’re both super-competitive; we don’t like to lose. Double Down was another way to apply that. After the first round, we never looked back.”

Incidentally, the competitors do rack up some sweet prizes, including iPods, gift cards and movie passes.

Keith Newvine, an English teacher at West Genesee High School and adviser for the Double Down team, had the group practice by playing Jeopardy! after school and reading Trivial Pursuit cards, but no weekend study sessions. “The program itself is pretty low-key,” he says. “If you over-think it or try to do too much, you’re bound to fail.”

Team advisers, usually teachers, have been a great source of feedback on ways to improve the show, says Bennett, a former music teacher. “They understand that while the competition has to be challenging and the students have to get something out of it, we also have to make good TV.”

Baker, who also contributes some of the questions, says he is pleased with the way the show has evolved over the years. “We went from being a little too pop-culture-y, to now being a solidly good show,” he says. “We’ve put a lot of thought into it. With the questions, we try to find as many common elements as we can, so that all the schools have a chance, but we want to challenge, too.”

Newvine said he’s convinced academic-themed competitions can inspire other students to take a step beyond the classroom. “These are kids who are going on to be doctors, or aerospace engineers,” he says. “This enables students to show off their talents on a larger scale.”

Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.


Want to compete?



• Greater Syracuse Scholastic Science Fair: contact Peter Plumley at gsssf@most.org

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York