At the Montana Academic State Championship Tuesday, teams of memorizationally gifted high schoolers raced against their opponents to answer trivia questions about a wide variety of topics.
Poetry, geography, history, chemistry, geology, math — even medieval battles — were among the question topics. Also known as Quiz Bowl, the competition demonstrated students’ impressive ability to study and remember very specific details with little time to think.
“Question 10,” the reader said to the Billings West and Frenchtown teams of four students each, who sat at tables before her. “The first celebration of what day, in the spring of 1970 included children —”
“Earth Day,” one Frenchtown student said before the reader could finish.
The reader continued onto another question. “The metamorphic rock called lapis lazuli is this color.”
Billings West pressed the buzzer: “Blue.”
“Yes!” the student said to his teammates. “I know that from Minecraft.”
The eighth annual state tournament was held in several classrooms in the University of Montana’s University Center Monday and Tuesday. On Monday, students competed individually and attended a banquet in the evening where they could mingle.
An anonymous donor provided scholarship money for the students who placed in the top four in the individual competition, with $1,500 for first place, $750 for second, $500 for third and $300 for fourth. Zach Mangels from Billings Skyview took first, Zach Tonnerre from Sentinel took second, Jaeger Held from Billings Senior took third, and Daniel Carlson from Manhattan took fourth.
The scholarship money can be used at any college or trade school of the students’ choice.
On Tuesday, 12 schools competed in teams of four for the state title. Billings Skyview came in first place, earning a $500 scholarship for the team budget. Sentinel came in second, Manhattan in third, and Bozeman in fourth, each earning smaller scholarships as well.
Students competed in more than 10 rounds of questioning, which consisted of several different formats, including “toss-up” questions, which have to be answered within 5 seconds of the question being asked, without discussion among teammates.
As the reader recites the question, giving more and more clues as she goes along, students must hit a buzzer to give their answer, risking losing points if they get the answer wrong before the question was fully read.
"During this medieval battle, professional soldiers called housecarls fought for the losing side," the reader said. "This battle to succeed Edward the Confessor on the throne, included the death of the losing side’s commander, that may have been caused by an arrow to the eye. Name this battle, depicted on the —"
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Buzz. "Hastings," a Billings West student answered.
During “team play,” students have 2 minutes to work together to identify as many of 20 terms written on a sheet as possible. Each team receives points for all the terms identified. The competition was fairly heated, despite being purely a battle of wits.
“I think a certain type of kid excels at this," said Maureen Ladd, the Billings West coach. "One of my kids says being in a Quiz Bowl tournament is like crack, it’s such a high to be here and to play. And those kids that love jeopardy just love recalling knowledge quickly.”
The questions used in the competition come from a company that creates Jeopardy-style questions professionally, making sure to cover all disciplines.
To manage answering questions about so many topics, it helps to have certain team members specialize, the Bozeman team said. Bozeman team member Joey Knappenberger, 16, said his strengths are in STEM questions.
“The practicing is more about creating strategies for how and when to answer, and less about learning individual things,” he said.
Knappenberger’s teammates complement his strengths by specializing in literature or music or European history. To practice, they meet twice a week and do online quizzes.
“You meet a lot of really cool people,” said Bozeman team member Jackie Olexa, 15. “And you learn a lot as well. It’s a good review for my AP Euro final. It’s a nice way of looking back on things you’ve learned in the past and refreshing your memory.”
Sentinel High School coach Will Pereira said he decided to coach Quiz Bowl because he competed in high school and loved it.
“These are a group of kids that are very involved in a lot of activities, but typically they don't have a lot of competitive activities that they’re involved in,” Pereira said. “This gives them a competitive outlet to participate in even if they’re not athletic.”
Pereira’s team won last year’s state tournament, though he says their training is fairly relaxed.
“I just get these kids together, if they can, once or twice a week in my room at lunch, and we just play quiz games online for the most part,” he said. "Every week I try to sneak in about 10 minutes worth of trying to train them on stuff that they may not be strong on that I know they need for these competitions in terms of content.”
Pereira said there are certain topics with which all teams typically struggle, such as playwrights, poetry and theater, so he spends extra time on those. He started coaching 15 years ago.
“I do it because it gives them a competitive outlet to participate in, but it also gives them a group and a place to belong, and there’s a lot of research showing that that's really important for success at school and beyond school,” he said. “And, it’s fun.”