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Pine-Richland trio advance to final 32 in global debate competition

| Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
Pine-Richland seniors Molly McCarthy, Mahak Sethi and Tyler Viljaste have made it into the final 32 teams in the 17th Annual International Public Policy Forum.They are the only team from Pennsylvania to qualify.
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Pine-Richland seniors Molly McCarthy, Mahak Sethi and Tyler Viljaste have made it into the final 32 teams in the 17th Annual International Public Policy Forum.They are the only team from Pennsylvania to qualify.

A trio of Pine-Richland High School students is tackling one very tough global issue and their debates on the subject may take them all the way to New York City this spring.

Seniors Mahak Sethi, Molly McCarthy and Tyler Viljaste have made it to the top 32 teams in the 17th Annual International Public Policy Forum, under the direction of The Brewer Foundation and New York University, which is a contest that gives high school students from around the world the opportunity to debate public policy. This year's topic is “Resolved: International climate accords for greenhouse gas emissions should adopt binding enforcement mechanisms,” and Pine-Richland is the only high school in the state to reach the round of 32.

“What I'm enjoying is just the ability to look at one of the most pressing issues of our time and getting a different perspective on it,” Viljaste said. “When I go to college I'm looking at political science and public policy, so this flowed really well into giving me real-world analysis and research background.”

The contest started with teams submitting a 2,800-word essay either from the affirmative or negative perspective on the chosen subject. A review committee then chose the top 64 essays and those teams then began head-to-head written debates. Pine-Richland was up against a team from Texas, which wrote from the affirmative perspective. Sethi, McCarthy and Viljaste provided the negative argument. Each team then got to respond once, and judges chose Pine-Richland as the winning team.

Viljaste said all three of them have put hours of research into their debates, and each focused on a different element. Viljaste argued from an economic impact standpoint, Sethi discussed the barrier to getting countries to sign an agreement in the first place and McCarthy focused on how oil prices would be affected. They then came together to craft the essay.

“It takes a significant amount of time because to put together a proposal and make it this far you have to cite relevant sources and sources of merit,” he said. “It definitely takes a while to do all the research then to come together and compose the argument itself. The struggle for us was fitting it into 2,800 words. We'd write so much, then go to (teacher Jeff Byko) and say, ‘We need help cutting this down,' and he was instrumental in helping make it cohesive.”

They are now debating against a British charter school located in Bahrain, which Viljaste said is providing them with a new perspective on the topic. The final eight teams will earn an all-expenses paid trip to the finals in New York City in April to compete in oral debates, with the winning team receiving a $10,000 grand prize and the Brewer Cup.

Byko said the skills the students are learning through this process are an extension of what they teach in debate and forensics at the school.

“We're addressing what tone do you set in your writing and your word choice, and getting to the heart of the matter in that you know you're arguing a point, not an individual,” Byko said. “It's not a personal attack and you don't want it to seem like it is. That's what we stress when we have debate competitions. We talk about confirmation bias and that the beauty of debate is forcing people to look at both sides and realize there may be merit and value in both sides.”

Karen Price is a Tribune-Review contributor.

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