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How a group of California teens won a national science bowl

By Frank KosaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 2008

Quick on the buzzer: The team from Santa Monica High School - Ian Scheffler, Marino Di Franco, Sasha Boulgakov, Dimitry Petrenko – triumphed over 66 teams at the national competition in Washington.

Ian Scheffler

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Ingo Gaida's classroom at Santa Monica High School is striking on two counts: First, for a biology class, it is remarkably devoid of life-forms, with the sole exception of a pint-sized goldfish named "Beast 6." Second, the air is filled with the drone of constant questions – imagine Gregorian monks chanting in a quiz show cadence – and the rapid-fire response by eight students all clutching their pedagogical tool of choice: a buzzer.

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And the questions are hard, really hard, although the students respond with fiber-optic quickness, usually well before the query is half uttered.

At this point, a realization is in order: The interrogator and these eight students are the life-form in this room. They comprise a cauldron of intellectual fervor – like one of those superheated sea vents occasionally discovered in the dark reaches of the ocean where creatures grow to unheard of lengths and live on minerals believed too rich to sustain life – the chemistry, biology, and ichthyology which these students could tell you about in considerable detail.

This is "Aca-deca," short for the Academic Decathlon class. Here, 30 of the best and brightest high school students in this California beach community prepare for national quiz competitions. Part crucible and part gauntlet, this is where the student teams are formed, tested, and toughened. It's the equivalent of intellectual "two-a-days."

Students prepare all year for three contests – one in general knowledge, one in science, and one on oceans. This year, for the first time since Mr. Gaida launched the class nine years ago, a Santa Monica team won first place in one of the contests – becoming national champions of the US Department of Energy's National Science Bowl. "The last three minutes of the final game were the longest three minutes of my life," says Gaida. "It's so hard to win this competition."

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Gaida is a tall, balding Advanced Placement biology teacher and native Californian who neither looks nor sounds like the legendary football coach Bear Bryant. Nevertheless, there are similarities. He has hand-selected his class based on results from grueling tryouts held each fall. The workouts include an arduous test on a fact-laced article chosen for its sheer monotony.

"It indicates whether a kid is willing to work on tough material," says Gaida, sounding like a didactic drill sergeant.

Comprised of roughly equal numbers of ninth through 12th graders, the quiz class is not for the feint of heart or mind. Students are expected to digest libraries of knowledge every three weeks. Things like the name of the medieval warriors outlawed in the Icelandic legal code known as the Grágás (Beserkers). Or, most often, science facts such as the stoichiometric coefficients for nitrogen, hydrogen, and ammonia in the balanced reaction for the Haber process (1, 3 & 2 respectively, if you must know).

They will be expected to recite the answers, accurately, in an Alex Trebek second. They are expected not to flinch, no matter what the pressure or how many people are watching. And it helps if they find the whole thing enjoyable.

"It's fun to compete," says Dimitry Petrenko, 18, the square-shouldered geology specialist. Then he gets more to the point: "I like to win."

He speaks from experience – he is a member of the championship team. Alexandre "Sasha" Boulgakov, Ian Scheffler, and Marino Di Franco are the other three. Although their days as a team are over – three are seniors and moving on – it is apparent they still function as a unit. In an interview, they tag team on stories, amplifying each others' thoughts and frequently clarifying statements for caliper accuracy.