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How a group of California teens won a national science bowl

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Students prepare all year for three contests – one in general knowledge, one in science, and one on oceans. This year, for the first time since Mr. Gaida launched the class nine years ago, a Santa Monica team won first place in one of the contests – becoming national champions of the US Department of Energy's National Science Bowl. "The last three minutes of the final game were the longest three minutes of my life," says Gaida. "It's so hard to win this competition."

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Gaida is a tall, balding Advanced Placement biology teacher and native Californian who neither looks nor sounds like the legendary football coach Bear Bryant. Nevertheless, there are similarities. He has hand-selected his class based on results from grueling tryouts held each fall. The workouts include an arduous test on a fact-laced article chosen for its sheer monotony.

"It indicates whether a kid is willing to work on tough material," says Gaida, sounding like a didactic drill sergeant.

Comprised of roughly equal numbers of ninth through 12th graders, the quiz class is not for the feint of heart or mind. Students are expected to digest libraries of knowledge every three weeks. Things like the name of the medieval warriors outlawed in the Icelandic legal code known as the Grágás (Beserkers). Or, most often, science facts such as the stoichiometric coefficients for nitrogen, hydrogen, and ammonia in the balanced reaction for the Haber process (1, 3 & 2 respectively, if you must know).

They will be expected to recite the answers, accurately, in an Alex Trebek second. They are expected not to flinch, no matter what the pressure or how many people are watching. And it helps if they find the whole thing enjoyable.

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