Well, they did it. After three straight years of coming so close — a second place and two third places — the North Hollywood High Science Bowl team won the national championship last month for exceptionally smart kids.
They went up against the brightest students from 63 high schools throughout the country and topped them all. So, let’s give it up for captain Albert Zhang, and team members Lydia Qin, Eric Yoon, Theo Dupont and Shion Murakawa.
This was their Super Bowl, an extremely intense competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. How intense? Listen to this.
“The question that sticks out in my mind was an earth science question about the mineral ‘stishovite,’” said science teacher Altair Maine, who coached the team. “Eric (Yoon) had to know the formula, the formation, and the crystal system.
“He had 20 seconds to answer each of the three-part question,” Maine said. “I’m a geologist and that’s a moderately obscure mineral most people have never heard of, but Eric nailed every answer.”
Maine may be the only science teacher in the country who never went to high school. He skipped it and went straight to college at 11. It helps when you have parents who were both rocket scientists at NASA.
A few of his college professors at Cal State University, Los Angeles thought the quiet, small boy sitting in the back of the auditorium was just the kid of someone in class who didn’t have child care. They didn’t realize he was a student until they started passing out the test for mid terms, and Maine asked for one. He aced it.
The older students were nice to him, but socially he hung out with a different crowd in college – the 13 to 15 year olds on the same fast track he was at 11. At 16, he entered grad school at Caltech. He could have gone anywhere after graduation, and made a boatload of money.
Instead, at age 20, he became a science teacher at North Hollywood High. If you’re thinking he had a higher calling to teach, forget it. He liked teaching, but was more interested in having summers off.
His team isn’t buying it. They know he eats and sleeps this opportunity to challenge and motivate them. “He’s an amazing coach and teacher,” Lydia Qin said, speaking for the team.
Zhang will be going to Stanford next year, Yoon to Cornell, Murakawa to MIT, and DuPont to UC Berkeley. Qin’s a junior, so she has one more year to make a choice.
“My guess is she’ll get into every college she applies to, so probably wherever college she wants in a year,” Maine said.
Getting ready for the competition this year on Zoom, rather than meeting face-to-face in class, was a challenge, but nothing the team couldn’t overcome.
“We missed our after school meetings, and doing fun things together, but nothing was going to take our focus away from winning, after being so close,” said Qin.
I asked Scion Murakawa what’s it like being uber smart on campus? Were they treated any differently? Were there any disadvantages? None, they said. Smart is a relative term.
“I feel like I’m surrounded by very smart people in general, in humanities, and athletically talented,” Scion said. “I’ve never felt smarter than other people. I’m surrounded by very cool people.”
The coolest and smartest being team captain Zhang, who could not attend the Zoom meeting we had last week because he’s studying 16 hours a day to make the U.S. Biology team which will compete this summer at the International Biology Olympiad.
He’s one of 20 students throughout the United States invited to try out, with only five being chosen to compete. He made the team last year and won a gold medal, Maine said, adding he likes Zhang’s chances of repeating.
“He knows even more this year. He’s very brilliant and focused, but he’s not a one dimensional science machine. He has plenty of other interests, like all these kids.
“He’s a likeable dude, but he’s also a genius who works his butt off,” Maine said.
In a few months, the coach and the captain will go to lunch, and pick the captain for next year’s team. They’ll talk about the smartest kids on the B team, the seniors who have a chance, and the straight A students coming up from middle school.
In the end, who makes the A team boils down to one thing, Maine said. Merit.
Who’s going to breakdown the mineral “stishovite” in 20 seconds, and bring the national science trophy back to North Hollywood High?
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at [email protected].
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