Students Prep for Super Bowl of the Mind:

Game shows off science smarts

When it came to knowing what type of cancer is the most common in the United States, Steve Gagnon had the right response, but his fellow Jefferson Lab co-worker Kelly Caccetta had the wrong reaction.

The two joined about a dozen other staffers this week as the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility prepared to host this year's Virginia Regional Science Bowl today. The annual academic competition grills high school students in a question-and-answer game format. The lab hasn't hosted the event since 1995.

Gagnon, the lab's science education specialist, was pretending to be a student during a rehearsal for the competition, and answered the question even before it was completely asked. Lung cancer.

"Go, Steve! Go, Steve!" Caccetta blurted out, doing a kind of Hula-Hoop jig in her chair. It was a good illustration of how not to act during a real match, Gagnon said.

"We don't need cheerleaders here," he said, explaining that volunteers should admonish that kind of behavior from participants. "This is supposed to be dignified."

But controlling the students' enthusiasm — as well as their own — may prove to be a challenge.

Twenty teams representing high schools from across the state are expected to muster their science sense today, each vying for a shot at the Science Bowl Nationals held in Washington, D.C., in May. In today's competition, the teams can win as much as $1,000 worth of school supplies for their respective schools.

Questions range across the scientific fields, requiring participants to know anything from the fact that a "barn" is a unit of microscopic measurement to how to calculate the period of vibration for a spring with a force constant of 100 Newtons per meter when it is loaded with one kilogram. (The answer is about 0.63 seconds.)

For the lab, the Science Bowl has meant gathering 63 volunteers from among the staff, their families and the community. On Wednesday, a few volunteers still wanted to go over their roles.

"Some of them are nervous," said Jan Tyler, the lab's education manager. "They know that these students have been working hard, and they don't want to mess this up."

In fact, Caccetta spent time Thursday and Friday going over the proper pronunciation of some of the scientific phrases.

"They are not questions that I could answer. I've learned a lot just by going through the questions," she said. "It's surprising, especially because we work at the lab. You think you're learning a lot of science. I don't think at that age I could have done it."