Montgomery Blair High School, a hub of science and math achievers in the Washington suburbs, has just notched another distinction: winner of the 2016 National Science Bowl.
Five Blair students took top honors this week in the competition that involved 9,000 high-schoolers from 69 schools across all 50 states and the District.
The team’s victory comes two months after Blair was part of the final round of competition in the prestigious annual Intel Science Talent Search for yet another year. Since 1999, the Silver Spring, Md., high school has had more Intel finalists than any other school in the country.
But to hear the Science Bowl team tell it, the new triumph was not something they foresaw. Their opponents were formidable, and Blair had not seen a first-place Science Bowl finish since 1999.
“We definitely weren’t expecting to win the whole thing,” said Jamie Vinson, a junior.
The final unfolded in the District on Monday, with Blair facing Lynbrook High School of San Jose in the fast-paced quiz game that some have compared with television’s “Jeopardy!”
The winning score: 84 to 40, after questions that might have left some in the audience scratching their heads.
“Material A has a bulk modulus that is twice the bulk modulus of material B. If both A and B have the same densities, by what factor must the speed of sound in B be multiplied to find the speed of sound in A?”
Arnold Mong, a senior, hit his buzzer right away, choosing the correct answer: the square root of 2. “It’s nice to answer questions right, especially on the big stage, when everyone is watching,” he reflected later in the week.
Mong and others on the Blair team are part of their high school’s elite math-science-computer science magnet program. They are coached by teacher Tran Pham.
Mong, 17, is the physics ace, and Eric Lu, 17, handles math, while Vinson, 17, specializes in chemistry and Alex Miao, 17, in biology. Elliot Kienzle, 16, the team alternate, is strong in Earth and space sciences.
“All the hard work has finally manifested,” said Lu, a senior with plans to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall. “We had really good team chemistry this year.”
The game was the 13th Blair played over two days, and some of the closest calls came early on. The team lost a game in the round-robin part of the competition. In another game, Blair was on the brink of losing when Lu rang the buzzer to answer the final question — and got it right.
A big moment came when the team faced off with Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology from Fairfax County, Va., which has racked up more top wins in the Science Bowl than Blair has over the years. When the two schools met this year, Blair won by a wide margin.
“Everything in that game went perfectly,” Lu said.
Thomas Jefferson finished the Science Bowl tied for fifth place, said the school’s coach, Sharon Webb. Over the years, “TJ” — as many know it — has won four national championships, she said. Blair just won its second.
“We definitely look at Montgomery Blair as a formidable opponent,” Webb said. “But it’s more of a friendly rivalry.”
Sponsored by the Energy Department, the competition — in its 26th year — also includes a middle school contest, won this year by Joaquin Miller Middle School of San Jose.
At Blair, the students meet every Thursday through the school year to practice.
At home, they study.
Especially after its Intel successes, some have marveled at how Blair does so well. The magnet program, with 100 students in each high school grade, offers classes that go deep into such areas as organic chemistry and quantum physics. Students do senior research projects and take eight classes a day rather than the typical seven.
“They’ve got great instruction and the students and the staff have a real passion, and it shows,” said Rebecca Smondrowski, a member of the Montgomery County Board of Education.
On Monday, as the final game ended, the Blair team high-fived one another. They shook the hands of their opponents. They celebrated with their coach. The prize: a nine-day, all-expenses-paid science trip to Alaska.
“It just seemed like a very unreal moment,” Miao, a junior, said. He recalled that the students had told each other earlier that “no matter the outcome, we would be happy.”
For Mong, the thrill came with a tinge of sadness.
A senior, he has participated in Science Bowls since eighth grade and has now accepted admission to Princeton University. “It was like a big part of my life ending,” he said.