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Seward has once again played host to another successful Alaska Tsunami Ocean Sciences Bowl. Conducted virtually this year, the annual quiz bowl-style marine science academic competition pits teams of students against one another from high schools across Alaska. From Friday through Sunday, eight teams representing seven Alaska schools were judged on the merits of their respective research papers and oral presentations in addition to their quiz bowl performance, with the best aggregate score taking first place. The winning team now advances to represent the Alaska region in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, held on May 9, 15 and 16.

This year’s overall winner was Juneau-Douglas High School, which secured first place in both their oral presentation and quiz bowl scores, with a second-place award for their research paper. The Alaska region is the only regional bowl to require such a paper, and each year’s research question is determined by the event’s host organization, the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (CFOS), which also runs the Seward Marine Center (SMC). 2021’s question was formulated by CFOS Assistant Marine Biology Professor and Lead Judge Amanda Kelley: “How have anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions influenced arctic or subarctic oceanic processes?”

Teams begin working on their research papers as early as September, and the papers’ accompanying oral presentations are delivered during the Tsunami Bowl. Event Organizer and SMC Science Liaison Gillian Braver said that while each team is comprised solely of high school students, all the material covered is held to the standards of higher education. 

“The idea with the whole competition is that it’s at the collegiate level,” Braver said. “The research paper is graded to the collegiate level. The quiz questions are at least undergraduate, but most of them are graduate level questions, so these students are really working. I mean, I don’t know half the questions, and I have a degree in geology. These students are dedicated, to the point that they are moving on to study — and to careers in — ocean science.”

Ordinarily held at Seward High School, COVID precautions forced this year’s event to go virtual. Braver said that while it was unfortunate that some aspects of the program could not be implemented, others adapted well to the restrictions.

“One thing that transitioned very well to the virtual space that we normally would have hosted in person is our Ocean Connections Art Show,” Braver said. “The art show is normally on display at the Alaska SeaLife Center, and it is all ocean-themed art that’s submitted by students all across the state, and we were able to successfully adapt that to the virtual space.”

The program also afforded students a virtual tour of the R/V Sikuliaq, the UAF CFOS research vessel home-ported at the SMC. Other changes necessitated by the online nature of this year’s event include the quiz bowl’s move away from direct, first-to-the-buzzer competition in order to accommodate slower rural internet speeds.

“Normally there are two teams that are kind of head-to-head, answering multiple choice ocean science-related questions, and usually whoever buzzes in gets the opportunity to answer a bonus question, so you’re working for points,” Braver said. “This year, due to the fact that many of our students live in rural areas across the state, we decided to do a non-head-to-head competition.”

It was in fact the event’s failure to provide travel opportunities for many of these rural students that Braver lamented most about this year’s restrictions.

“A lot of these students, coming to Seward is the only time out of the entire year they get to leave their little communities, something that they normally are really looking forward to that we just couldn’t deliver this year,” she said.

She went on to say, however, that the lessons learned by the move online may facilitate future participation for schools the Tsunami Bowl could not otherwise afford to bring to Seward.

“I think that we’ve opened the door for a hybrid competition in the future so that more students can participate because normally our travel budget is the limiting factor,” she said. “We can’t invite 40 teams from all over the state because it would be cost-prohibitive. This way we learned how to adapt enough of the competition so we are hopeful that students that maybe cannot travel can still participate. That would be pretty exciting.”

Bower added that the most significant silver lining to emerge from this year’s COVID-induced cloud was that it brought out the best, not just in the students, but in their coaches.

“Due to the pandemic and the fact that our students’ lives were completely uprooted, our coaches worked very hard this year to make the teams feel like some sort of family, I think, and supported our team members beyond just coaching them to success,” she said. “Our coaches put extra time and dedication into this season because they knew that a lot of their students were struggling, either at home or with their studies… and I think if it weren’t for science bowl, these students would have had a much darker winter.”

For more information, including a full list of all category winners, visit facebook.com/TsunamiBowlNOSB.