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Continued: Perseverance pays off: St. Paul science team goes to nationals

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 5, 2008 - 3:43 PM

Danie Monahan has been pushing, prodding and just plain pressuring her Science Bowl teammates to practice, practice, practice since July. But if this senior's perseverance seemed excessive before, it doesn't now. Monahan's St. Paul Central team recently won the Minnesota Science Bowl championship, a first-ever title for the school after several also-ran finishes.

The victory means Central is on its way to the National Science Bowl in Washington at the beginning of May. And Monahan and her teammates, who seem to eat, drink and sleep math and science, couldn't be happier. Monahan, who has competed in the annual Science Bowl competition since her freshman year, thinks her squad can do some damage at nationals.

"I know that this is the best team that I've ever seen coming through Central," she said.

In the arena of school competition, academic pursuits such as Science Bowl, Science Olympiad and speech and debate get short shrift compared to athletic endeavors when it comes to media and public attention. But that doesn't mean these competitors are any less dedicated, said Randy Knoche, Central's Science Bowl coach. The kids have practiced one night a week, from July through late-January, to win this single event.

"They have been so focused," said Knoche, coach for the past eight years.

And they are still going. On a recent night, the five-member varsity team was getting ready for the weekend Science Olympiad, in which they all have entered an event. They also compete in Quiz Bowl and math competitions. Knoche said that, for these kids, it's about more than just competing. It's about friendships and socializing.

As he spoke, Jon Schellenberg worked on a keyboard while Monahan practiced on a flute she had made from copper for the Olympiad. Teammates Elwood McCreary, Jennifer Wei and Martin Camacho laughed and joked about their season.

They have defined roles on the team. Schellenberg specialized in Earth Science questions; McCreary was the go-to guy for physics. Camacho, who is just an eighth-grader, is the math whiz. Monahan is a sort of Jack-of-all-trades, but she especially loves astronomy. And Wei? "I guess I'm supposed to be doing biology," she said.

Monahan said the best skill to have is "a really good memory." And in much the same way a football player will remember a key block he threw to clear the running back for a touchdown, Wei and Monahan recalled pulling the answer to a key question from somewhere in the file cabinets they store in their heads. The question? What is the bond angle of carbon tetrachloride. "109.5," they said, laughing. It's a science thing -- most of us wouldn't understand.

Practice consists of going over questions from past competitions and working on developing a fast buzzer thumb. In Science Bowl, teams are given toss-up questions and the first to press their buzzer first and answer correctly wins four points. More importantly, they get the exclusive chance to win a 10-point bonus question. Knoche said Central's team makes tracks on its bonus questions, which gives it more time to put their heads together and come up with the answer.

They have some pretty good heads. Monahan has scored a perfect 2,400 on her SAT and hopes to go Yale. McCreary, the varsity's only other senior, was just a few points from perfect on his SAT and wants to study math and science at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. Camacho, something of a phenom, is only 12 but will probably graduate from college before he can shave.

Sacrifices for the team

Success has not only required dedication until now. Both Monahan and McCreary, who are enrolled in Central's demanding International Baccalaureate program, are sacrificing their chance to earn a full IB diploma -- that diploma can eliminate the need for some college prerequisite classes and costs. Their IB English test will be given while the team is in Washington for the National Science Bowl and cannot be made up.

Without hesitation, the students say they are going to nationals. They'll come back from college and take the English test next year, if need be.

In the meantime, there is a national championship to be won. And, thanks to Monahan's pushing, prodding and pressuring, Central might just surprise some people -- again.

James Walsh • 651-298-1541

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