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Sharp and quick: Cottage Grove students compete in science bowl

The Cottage Grove Middle School science bowl team includes (from left) Jack Velte, assistant coach Tony Velte, Billy Menken, Charley Menken, Luke Velte, Harry Menken and coach Dan Menken. (Submitted photo)

It may not require the skill needed to rocket down an Olympic ski slope at 75 miles an hour.

But earning a spot in the Minnesota State Regional Science Bowl requires many of the same ingredients: a commitment to excellence, hours of practice, nerves of steel and quick thinking.

Not to mention a quick hand on the buzzer.

A student team from Cottage Grove Middle School competed Saturday at the University of St. Thomas.

In addition to solving math problems on the spot, the 24 teams in the round-robin tournament answer questions pertaining to physics, astronomy, Earth science and biology.

It isn’t enough to know the answer to such brain-crampers as, “What planet has the greatest variation in temperature over a single one of its planetary days?”

You also have to beat your opponent to the buzzer.

The team practiced year-round, answering thousands of sample questions, said coach Daniel Menken of Woodbury. His sons, Harry, Charley and Billy are members of the team.

They even purchased a lock-out buzzer similar to the one used on “Jeopardy” so the kids could hone their reflexes.

“They really are learning a lot of science,” Menken said. “But there’s also a gamesmanship strategy to part of this. Its like ‘Jeopardy.’ You have to buzz in fast. You have to anticipate.”

Other team members include Jack Velte and team captain Luke Velte. Assistant coach is their father,Tony Velte.

The team made it through a five-round, World Cup-style group play in the morning and moved on to the double-elimination tournament in the afternoon.

“Competition was fierce with frequent lead changes and so advanced that judges, who are mostly PhD scientist volunteers from the Minnesota Academy of Science, struggled to keep up with the scientific nomenclature and Jeopardy-style rules,” Menken said after the tournament.

The Cottage Grove team was eliminated in the afternoon tournament, but Menken said they were proud of how the team members represented the school and demonstrated poise during technical discussions with the judges.

The winning team from each of the regional events competes in the U.S. Department of Energy National Science Bowl in Washington, D.C., in April. Eden Prairie Central Middle School won the Minnesota tournament, which also included Woodbury’s Math and Science Academy.

The middle school and high school National Science Bowls are intended to stoke students’ interest in math and science activities that can be used in service to the Department of Energy and, by extension, benefit the country at large.

The Cottage Grove Middle School Science Bowl Support Team includes Tina Van Erp, Laura Vogel, Susan Nicholas, Elise Block, Eileen McElrath and Kymm Salwasser. 

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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