Kids Quizzed About Ocean Sciences

Students concentrate on ocean sciences at Oregon State University's regional Salmon Bowl. (Photo: xxxx)
Students concentrate on ocean sciences at Oregon State University’s regional Salmon Bowl. (Photo: Saskia Madlener)

THE AIR BRISTLES WITH ANTICIPATION inside Gilfillan Auditorium, whose perforated metal walls hum with the vibration of voices. Just moments before the championship round of a battle of the minds called Salmon Bowl at Oregon State University, everyone is focused on the two surviving teams. As the finalists wait nervously onstage, the earlier-round competitors sprawl across rows of seats in the arena. Despite having been eliminated earlier in the day, the competitors chatter happily with their teammates and supporters. No hard feelings here — just camaraderie and excitement.

High school students from across the West, from coastal and land-locked states alike, converged at OSU this summer for the annual competitive and educational brain challenge called the Salmon Bowl. A regional offshoot of the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, the event is a longstanding tradition at OSU, launched nearly two decades ago to give math and science whizzes a chance to demonstrate their expertise. “The competitors receive national recognition for their diligence and talent while broadening their awareness and understanding of the oceans,” says professor Flaxen Conway, director of the Salmon Bowl, which is sponsored by OSU’s College of Earth, Oceanic, and Atmospheric Sciences and Marine Resource Management program.

At the one-day regional competition, students field rapid-fire questions on the biology, chemistry, geology, physics, history and economics of the world’s oceans, as well as wading into navigation, geography and current events. The winning team advances to a two-day final national competition, held in a different city each year. Over the program’s 18 years, thousands of high schoolers — over half of them girls — have tested their excellence in a wide range of ocean-related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Rolled into a spirited contest for scholarships — and glory — are additional opportunities for kids, such as networking and leadership skills. Not insignificantly, the program has produced at least two national championship teams. It has even planted seeds for new ocean sciences curricula.

Finalists listen to questions, ready to push the buzzer with the right answer. (Photo: xxxx)
Finalists listen intently to questions, poised to push the buzzer with the right answer. (Photo: Saskia Madlener)

About 15 schools in Oregon, California and Idaho participated this summer, most holding fundraisers to send students to the event. “Pulling together funding is tough, but we wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t a draw,” says Tony Baca, coach of Idaho’s Boise High School, this year’s reigning team. In 2014 when their regional bowl was cancelled, coaches and students from two California high schools, Dana Hills and La Jolla, put in over 2,000 round-trip miles to participate in the Salmon Bowl at OSU.

“This is the best-run bowl I’ve seen,” says Randy Hudson. Other coaches and students echo his sentiments. It’s all about transferable skills, love of learning and connections through mentorship and networking, they say.

If You Love It, Do It

Coaches sit just within reach of tabletop buzzers at the front and center of the audience. A flash of light on an overhead screen brings everyone to attention as a document camera comes to life, showing the rules and regs for competition. Bodies settle into seats as a low-voiced announcer reads the rules one last time. The final round of the 18th annual Salmon Bowl begins. Buzzers screech as an announcer finishes reading a question on invertebrate taxonomy. A scramble ensues as one team gives the wrong answer and is quickly corrected by the opposing team.

The fierce competition is a clear demonstration of the months of reports, drills and meetings that each student puts in as preparation for game day. Depending on their needs, many teams come together as “self-starters,” who choose their own leaders and determine how, when and what to study. Using textbooks, videos, articles and presentations, students teach each other and themselves everything they can about oceanic systems. Tournament questions obviously pertain to the ocean and its complexities, but the ocean, as one long-time volunteer describes, is just an overlay; in their nuances, the questions cover a broad range of social, biological and physical sciences, pointing to the interdisciplinary nature of the ocean itself. The breadth of topics can make preparation difficult. But for many of the students, it is also their biggest draw to the competition.

Kids on boat.
The 2015 runner-up team from Neah-Kah-Nie High School won a professional crabbing expedition.

Students are encouraged to exercise their love of learning and dive into subjects wholeheartedly. Baca, whose team went on to win the national competition in 2015, says, “What sets this competition apart from others is the breadth of information the kids have to absorb, the diversity of subjects that pulls in kids from all sorts of interests.” To conquer the required but vast knowledge base, teams frequently consist of several “experts” who cover a niche of subjects aligned with their own personal aspirations and interests. “So if one kid loves history,” Baca explains, “they can dive into the history, culture and social science aspects of ocean and coastal life. Kids who are interested in chemistry are allowed to spend hours doing that, too.” As they perform these practices, students and their coaches coincidentally open the door for critical thinking and lifelong learning.

Collegiate Connections

For the coaches and students, Salmon Bowl offers an additional draw: networking, and the community it creates for college-bound students. Team spirit and camaraderie are in ample supply, indicated by matching costumes among teammates (and sometimes coaches). Before and during competition day, coaches and students bond with each other over practice rounds and on their downtime between study sessions. Students engage with professionals in marine sciences in and around Oregon through sponsorship, lab tours, presentations and awards. The 2015 runner-up, for example, Neah-Kah-Nie High School in Rockaway Beach, Oregon, won a professional crabbing expedition as their consolation prize.

Set on OSU’s campus, the event creates intentional connections to higher ed during the tournament. As a reward, the winning team members each receive a $1,000 scholarship to OSU in any discipline. Students also connect with OSU programs and staff through tours and talks offering an up-close look at college, research and advanced technological development. Students are encouraged to connect with researchers, who were very often like them when in high school, and who went on to make incredible things happen in the lab and field. For some students, this early exposure becomes a foot-in-the-door that draws them toward post-secondary education.

Supporting Students into the Future

A Salmon Bowl participant gives a thumb's up. (Photo: xxx)
A Salmon Bowl participant gives a thumb’s up. (Photo: Saskia Madlener)

Although consistently faced with financial obstacles, the Salmon Bowl’s devoted coordinators and volunteers are rich in enthusiasm and continue to produce lasting impact on the their students’ lives. The competition’s broader impact is so easily reflected in the impressions and ideals of its graduates and participants. Former participant Paul Walczak put it this way: “The experience I received participating in Salmon Bowl helped me in ways that coursework alone did not. It’s important for all of us to understand the ocean… even if we don’t work in it.” In a programmatic self-assessment, 78 percent of students surveyed responded that taking part in the bowl raised their awareness of careers in marine sciences.

Besides the glory and the scholarships, there is the passion within the Salmon Bowl community — dozens upon dozens of dedicated workers and students of all ages, across gender lines, displaying deep commitment to learning and marine sustainability. The Salmon Bowl is OSU’s contribution to the STEM leadership pipeline, a way to increase K-12 students’ exposure to marine sciences and marine resources. The 100 emerging scientists and science-lovers involved in the project help pique the students’ interest and, in the words of one coach, “helps them feel they can do something about someplace they love.”

Getting Involved

In the years to come, the Salmon Bowl will need continuing public and private support. The small annual budget pays for two Graduate Teaching Assistants, who serve as coordinators. Because one of the biggest the networking activities are a huge draw, the coordinators always welcome collaboration with researchers and organizations in the Corvallis-area who are willing to give tours or talks to participants the day before competition. Although some students will enter the marine sciences, most come to compete with a strong interest in STEM fields across all disciplines. All are welcome. In coming years, the bowl’s biggest supporters, the volunteers, will be in high demand as OSU gets ready to host the National Oceanic Sciences Bowl finals here in Corvallis in 2017.

With her finger poised on the buzzer, a student listens raptly to the questioner. (Photo: xxx)
With her finger poised on the buzzer, a student listens raptly to the questioner, ready to jump in with her answer. (Photo: Saskia Madlener)

With everyone’s help, we can continue to sustain a valuable resource for high schoolers within and around Oregon. To learn more about the Salmon Bowl, visit website at To get involved, make a donation, or inquire about volunteering, email or contact director Flaxen Conway at