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Students shine in area contests

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Posted on: April 10, 2012

BY SUSIE CURRIE — While much of the country was watching the NCAA basketball championships, Prince George’s County Public School students were vying for titles of their own. Here’s a look at what our local high school and middle schools have been up to this spring.


Northwestern High School students will represent the county at next month’s National Catholic Forensic League Grand National Tournament.

Team members Tahlia Bridgmahnon, Shane James, Henry Kramer, Natalia Mitiuriev and Christian Romero will enter events individually and in pairs at the tournament, which is scheduled for Memorial Day weekend in Baltimore.

Their place at the national contest was secured on March 17, when longtime theater teacher Curt Somers coached them to a second-place showing at the Washington-Arlington Catholic Forensic League Metro Championships. Nearly 100 high schools from Maryland, D.C., and Virginia competed at the event, held at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney.

These days, thanks to cable shows and bestselling authors, the word “forensics” is likely to conjure up images of crime labs. But before it became inextricably linked with DNA samples or autopsy reports, forensics was known as the art of argumentation and formal debate. It was used in criminal cases, but not in the CSI way. The word comes from a Latin term meaning “before the Forum,” referring to the place where criminal cases were heard in Ancient Rome. Instead of using physical evidence to establish guilt or innocence, the accuser and accused made their case before a group. The winner was the one with the best argument and delivery.

The National Catholic Forensic League was founded in 1951 to promote speech and debate activities in secondary schools – and thereby help develop articulate leaders. Open to both public and private high schools, the NCFL has local chapters in 35 states and the District of Columbia.

Its annual tournament offers events in both debate and speech. The Northwestern students will be entering only speech competitions: Extemporaneous Speaking (James), Original Oratory (Romero),  Oral Interpretation (Bridgmahnon and Kramer), and Duo Interpretation (Mitiuriev and Kramer).

Whatever happens in Baltimore, the team’s regional win has already led to an award, of sorts, for Northwestern: Next year, Somers will teach a speech class there to continue training future orators.


At the 25th Annual Prince George’s County Science Bowl, defending champion Hyattsville Middle School was aiming to tie a record. It had won six times, including three of the last four contests; only Kenmoor, with seven titles, had more. And this year, Kenmoor had missed the entry deadline and wasn’t in the game.

The stage was set. In November, the first round of competition had whittled 16 middle-school teams to four, including HMS. Team sponsor Howard Knights, who teaches 8th-grade science, worked with a group of seven students once or twice a week after school to prepare for the semifinals. They watched past shows on YouTube and staged in-house mock competitions, with Knights sometimes sweetening the pot by doling out Monopoly money, the school currency used to purchase homework passes and other prized possessions.

On March 27, the four teams met at the Bonnie Johns Media Center in Landover. Representing HMS were Shawn Meepagala, Owen Roy – both veterans, having competed at the elementary-school level – and Shakera Gregory. Their match was against Beltsville’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School.

By the thinnest of margins – 210 to 205 – HMS fell to MLK. That school earned its third championship title that afternoon when it went on to defeat Clinton’s Stephen Decatur in a more lopsided contest (310 to 190).

Blame pink slime. That was the answer to the last question of the game, a five-pointer that came with the score tied at 205. MLK buzzed in first, for the win.

“With these two teams, we knew it would be close,” said Jeannine Dorothy, a contest judge for 22 years. “But I’ve never seen a five-point difference. It’s come down to one question before, but it’s usually a higher-point one: 20 or 25 points.”

Similar to the Jeopardy! game-show format, Science Bowl rounds consist of questions chosen from a board with six categories, ranging from plants to physics to Science Potpourri.  Five questions in each category are worth from 5 to 25 points. Teams start the round with 50 points and add to their  score by being the first to buzz in with the correct answer.

There are no penalties for incorrect answers. But as both teams learned, being too quick on the draw – buzzing in before hearing the whole question – can lead to the other team scoring.

David Zahren, senior television specialist with the PGCPS Office of Television Resources, is the competition’s creator and host. He started the elementary competition in 1986 and the middle-school one a year later.

“We wanted to do something on par with ’It’s Academic,’ which is for high-school kids,” said Zahren, who hosts the Baltimore version of that popular televised quiz show.

A former middle-school science teacher, he writes all the questions, incorporating pop culture and current events where possible. During the HMS-MLK matchup, for example, one answer (“helium”) came from the Disney movie John Carter, which had opened just weeks earlier.

Knights already has his sights set on the 2013 matchup. “That five of the current team members are 7th graders bodes well for … success come next year’s competition.”

And, he said, they’ll be sure to “practice better timing on the buzzer.”

The Science Bowl middle-school semifinals will air on cable channels 96 and 38 during the week of April 30, with finals scheduled to show May 14 to 28. Check local listings for times.


Sixteen students at Nicholas Orem Middle School will be pitting their remote-controlled underwater robots against those from other state teams this month at the Maryland SeaPerch Regionals. It’s one of 15 Prince George’s County middle schools competing at the tournament, which will be held at the U.S. Naval Academy on April 14.

Funded by the Office of Naval Research, the SeaPerch program was designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to teach underwater robotics to secondary-school students. Teams work from a kit that includes a design and all materials necessary to build a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV).

“They have the directions, but they have to decide how to best execute the procedures,” explained first-year teacher Charlotte Rajasingh, who founded the team in January with fellow science instructor Thomas Jensen. “This requires them to understand fully what they are doing and then make a plan of action. It is this kind of work that engineers and scientists do every day.”

The Nicholas Orem students, nine 7th-graders and seven 8th-graders, make up four teams. Assisted by University of Maryland students, they have been meeting weekly since February to build the ROVs.







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