The students from Norwin High School were hanging out Saturday at the Community College of Allegheny County south campus, laughing and having a good time.
After all, they'd just had the chance to answer questions like this one:
"A projectile is launched tangentially to the Earth's surface at a speed such that it will neither collide with the Earth nor escape its gravity. Ignoring air resistance, this projectile's trajectory will have which of the following shapes -- parabolic, circular or elliptical?"
As if that wasn't enough fun, they also got to decide whether an exon could be translated into a protein, and what the missing factor was that contributed to the Palmer Drought Severity Index.
The standard for what constitutes major merriment is different at the Southwestern Pennsylvania Science Bowl, a Jeopardy-style competition that pits teams of middle school and high school students against each other on head-scratchers ranging from math and physics to biology and earth sciences.
Sponsored by the federal Department of Energy, the contest is now in its 22nd year, and the southwestern Pennsylvania region has done well for itself over that time, said Lilas Soukup, the local coordinator and a public affairs specialist at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in South Park.
Over that span, teams from this region have been in the top 10 nationally for all but five or six years, she said, and boast one national winner -- the State College team in 2006 -- and a national finalist, Pittsburgh's Allderdice High School, in 2003.
The Norwin team, based in Westmoreland County, has performed well in recent years and is also known for coach Matthew Anticole's emphasis on encouraging girls to become involved in science, engineering and math.
That was evident in the lineup of the varsity team Saturday, which had three girls and one boy.
One junior, Sarah Kerr, jumped in several times with correct answers, even though she was a first-time competitor. Was she as cool as she looked? "No, I'm really nervous, but we practice so much at school it's not too bad."
"And she's really smart," added junior Alexis Boytim.
Sophomore Sam Bartuska was back for his second competition. "Last year I sort of got to watch a little bit more, so this year I'm more active."
One tip he had learned? "Always be willing to guess," because if someone answers a question after it's been completely read, he doesn't lose points by taking a stab at it.
But woe unto those who jump in early and don't have the right answer. The four points they would have earned go to the other team and gives that team a chance at the 10-point bonus question.
That explains why team captain Lindsey Robinson, a junior who hopes to become an anesthesiologist, doesn't like to jump the gun on questions before they're done, especially since, in her opinion, the difficulty level ranges from "stuff I learned in eighth grade to AP calculus."
By the lunch break Saturday, the Norwin varsity team was 2-0, but then it ran into the buzz saw of Shady Side Academy, whose team already had won three straight matches. By day's end, the Norwin varsity squad ended up with a 5-3 record, losing two of its matches by less than 10 points, Mr. Anticole said, "so we really feel pretty good about where we ended up."
The four teams going to the regional finals on March 12 are Shady Side, which won eight out of nine matches; a team from Hempfield Area High School near Greensburg; and two teams from North Allegheny High School. The winner of that contest will go to Washington, D.C., for the national finals on April 25-29.
Because each team has just four or five students, the competition creates more of a "level playing field" between smaller and larger high schools, Ms. Soukup said.
Still, public schools with lots of affluent families or private schools do carry advantages, said Steve Scoville, a physics teacher at Brashear High School in Pittsburgh.
The economic and other problems facing inner-city schools can make it harder to organize and sustain a team, he said.
No city buses regularly serve his school in Beechview, Mr. Scoville said, so it's often difficult for students to get transportation to and from extracurricular activities. He recalled one student he had on a Science Bowl team who could only participate because Mr. Scoville picked him up at his home and dropped him off afterward.
Still, despite such challenges and despite Brashear not having won its division in recent years, the thing he wants his students to focus on is that "it doesn't matter where you've come from; it's what you're going to be doing in the future that counts."
As he talked, the practice rounds continued nonstop in the background.
"Which of the following is the reason why many modern crop-producing plants like wheat have much larger cell volumes than the ancestral wild plants from which they were derived?" read the volunteer questioner.
As the students buzzed in to answer, Norwin's Mr. Anticole reflected on why this constant drilling was important.
"There's not really a safe margin in these contests, because if you interrupt with a wrong answer, the other team's 18 points up and suddenly it's a match again."
Mark Roth: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1130.