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Yough students enjoy challenge of Science Bowl

Joe Napsha
| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
One of the Yough Science Bowl teams, with coach Dana Newlin (left) and consisting of students (from left) Josh Belko, Josh Markle, Travis Conway, team captain Dan Turnsek and Michael Babilya, poses at the Science Bowl Feb. 22, 2014.
One of the Yough Science Bowl teams, with coach Dana Newlin (left) and consisting of students (from left) Josh Belko, Josh Markle, Travis Conway, team captain Dan Turnsek and Michael Babilya, poses at the Science Bowl Feb. 22, 2014.

A group of Yough High School students accustomed to competing in cross-country, basketball, football, golf, soccer and track, tested their skills recently in a different arena – in classrooms pitting their knowledge of science against students from other schools in the region.

“We knew so much chemistry and physics compared to the other schools. It was great,” said Daniel Turnsek, a captain of one of two Yough High School teams to compete in the recent Southwestern Pennsylvania Science Bowl at the Community College of Allegheny County's South Campus in West Mifflin.

Although neither Yough team won the local competition that featured 58 teams from 36 schools, Turnsek said he enjoyed the competitive atmosphere of the Science Bowl. Turnsek was especially pleased by how Yough matched up against larger schools and private schools that usually receive recognition for excellence in science.

Michael Babilya, Josh Belko, Travis Conway and Josh Markle joined Turnsek on the team coached by Dana Newlin, a Yough chemistry and anatomy teacher.

Belko, a first-time science bowl competitor, was satisfied with how the team fared against larger schools, especially after defeating a strong Hempfield Area team that made finals the previous year.

The junior varsity team of sophomores Vincent Boyle, Luke Falbo, Reid Stahley and Brice Fekete, team captain, are working toward a science track similar to the varsity team, Newlin said. Being around such strong science students instills in the young competitors a desire to learn more and at a higher level, she added.

The junior varsity coach, Sylvia J. Toporcer, a gifted program, biology and botany teacher, said she enjoys giving the students an opportunity to participate in science competitions.

“It is so motivating for the younger students to see where they will be in a few years with their studies in science,” Toporcer said.

Students were asked difficult questions that tested their knowledge of biology, math, chemistry and physics at the competition. The format was similar to that of the television game show “Jeopardy” – where a moderator asked a question and both teams competed for the chance to be the first to answer.

Yough's varsity science bowl team may not have practiced that much for the competition, but every day the team members spent in school was practice for the advanced science and math topics that were covered in the competition, Newlin said. All five members of her team are taking Advance Placement physics and AP calculus, and four of the five are studying AP chemistry. All of her team members were part of a rigorous math program throughout high school, Newlin said.

“It's important for these kids to have something to do with their science knowledge. It's great they're learning all of this, but competitions like Science Bowl give them a chance to show off what they're capable of,” said Newlin, who was captain of a Quiz Bowl team while a student at Geibel High School in Connellsville.

With several subjects covered in the Science Bowl, “it gives more students the opportunity to participate,” said Lisa Soukup, a National Energy Technology Laboratory employee who coordinated the Science Bowl competition.

The Science Bowl also is different than other science fairs, where participants are required to build something or make a display, Soukup said.

“It tests their knowledge of science,” Soukup said.

It is important that the high school and college students of today pursue careers in the sciences because “every year, there are tens of thousands of scientists” who are going to retire, said Scott Klara, acting director of the Department of Energy's national laboratory in Bruceton.

“Science and engineering are always the future for technology development. They (students) are going to truly be the next generation of scientists and engineers,” Klara said.

That next generation, however, would be entering science, technology and math fields where only 24 percent of the workforce were women as of 2009, according to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economics and Statistics Administration.

The under-representation of women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce remained fairly consistent in the previous decade, even as women's share of the college-educated workforce increased, the study found. Only one of seven engineers were women in 2009, while females comprised more than one-fourth of the computer and math workforce.

In the physical and life sciences jobs, however, the study found that women made up about 40 percent of the workforce in 2009, an increase from 36 percent in 2000.

Although both Yough teams were coached by women and the high school has more female than male science teachers, neither Yough science team had any girls.

“I do think it's strange that fewer girls want to participate, especially coming from a school where both coaches are female science teachers,” Newlin said.

Yough High School's Advanced Placement physics class has 14 boys, but no girls, while the AP chemistry class that is one-third girls, is a little more balanced, Newlin said.

When Newlin was on the Geibel High School Quiz Bowl team, she said she was the “math kid” and most schools were surprised that a female was capable of that.

“I think many girls are intimidated by advanced science being a boys' world,” Newlin said.

Four of the five Yough varsity Science Bowl team plan to study engineering in college next year – Babilya at Penn State, Belko at Pitt and Conway and Turnsek, both at St. Vincent College.

The federal government report speculated that women may be underrepresented in STEM fields because of different choices men and women typically make in response to incentives in STEM education and STEM employment. Some STEM career paths may be less accommodating to people who leave the workforce to raise a family – or it may be because there are relatively few female STEM role models. Women with STEM degrees are more likely to work in education or healthcare, the report stated.

Female students at Yough High School do have role models of women in STEM fields because Yough High School has more female than male science teachers, Newlin said. In addition, Yough's robotics team leader is also female, Newlin said.

“We set an example that girls are more than capable of succeeding in science,” Newlin said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-836-5252.

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