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MUHS competitors flex their intellectual muscles

MIDDLEBURY — Two of Middlebury Union High School’s most successful teams this year haven’t scored a single run, goal, touchdown or basket.
But they’ve scored a ton of points in academic competition.
A group of MUHS students continued the school’s stellar track record at the annual Vermont-NEA Scholars’ Bowl, placing in the top four in the varsity state tourney held on March 25.
This great result came a month after the school made its first-ever foray into the national “Moody’s Mega Math Challenge,” in which a Tiger team of five juniors and seniors placed in the top 90 of 1,121 squads throughout the country that tackled a strictly-timed environmental brain teaser.
“They were two really great, strong groups of kids,” said MUHS teacher Perry Lessing. “The Moody’s group is most impressive for being completely self-directed. They get a lot of credit for completely taking it on.”
Every year, Lessing has received a pitch from Moody’s to enter a team in the online competition, during which participants get 14 hours to collaboratively research and solve a math-related problem and submit their answers in a written report.
High schools throughout the U.S. may enter up to two teams of three to five junior and/or senior students. Winners divvy up scholarship prizes totaling $150,000.
With the homework, extracurriculars and family obligations in students’ schedules, the Moody’s competition has been a tough sell, Lessing acknowledged.
“No one has ever taken me up on it,” Lessing said.
Until senior Dace Eaton rallied some classmates this year to join him in the competitive fray. The team included Eaton, Jakub Kraus, Ronan Howlett, Julian Schmitt and Bas Phair.
“I contacted the four other guys and asked, ‘Do you want to do this?’” Eaton recalled. “They all seemed to be up for it. Even if we didn’t win anything, it would be fun to test our math chops and see how we could do against all the other teams.”
The crew asked Lessing to serve as their coach, but he unfortunately took ill a few weeks leading into up to competition day.
No worries. The students just asked for Lessing’s permission to put his name on their application form, which he did. They proceeded to train on their own.
Lessing was in Boston the day of the competition (Feb. 25), but he was confident in his students’ intellect and commitment. The crew did him proud as they united in a conference room at the Middlebury College library where they brainstormed, debated and wrote feverishly, right up to the 14-hour limit. Students were able to conduct online research but could not ask for help from other individuals.
“We didn’t know what the problem was going to be,” Eaton said, though teams were given a cryptic hint that it would be related to the “health of the world.”
They downloaded the problem and re-read it a couple of times.
“At first it looked easy, but then it got harder once we actually started to think about it,” Howlett said.
Dr. Neil Nicholson of North Central College authored the problem, which essentially asked for strategies to protect coastal areas within five national parks from the future impacts of climate change. This required the students, among other things, to calculate potential sea level changes brought on by rising temperatures, and how such changes might threaten individual parks. The students identified potential risks caused by temperature and sea level increases, including shoreline erosion, hurricanes, wildfires and air quality.
COLLECTIVE REASONING
The MUHS team worked mainly as a group but occasionally split up to tackle individual parts of the problem. They ultimately used their findings and collective reasoning to recommend where the National Park Service, or NPS, should earmark its resources at the five parks to ensure proper stewardship and maximum visits for those properties as climate change takes hold.
With only four minutes to spare, the Tiger team emailed its 18-page solution, complete with graphs and recommendations, to the Moody’s judges.
“Based on our findings, we recommend the NPS invest finances into Olympic National Park and Cape Hatteras National Seashore, as they will have the highest population growth after 50 years,” the team concluded in its report. “However, the NPS should also promote tourism in the parks with the lowest vulnerability ratings, as these are more likely to be around in the future: Olympic, Kanai and Acadia national parks. In order to extend the success of the other parks — Padre and Cape Hatteras — buildings here should be weatherized against hurricanes, as these largely contribute to our vulnerability index.”
Moody’s officials recently informed the MUHS team of its top-90 finish, which carried $1,000 in scholarship money for the five students to split. They were pleased at how things turned out.
“I thought we did a good job, especially for the amount of time we got to prepare for it,” Phair said.
“What was interesting is that we had to interpret the raw data,” Schmitt said, meaning they couldn’t source any pat answers for parts of the problem they were solving.
Kraus conceded he was at first a little flustered by the prospect of having to generate a 20-page solution paper.
“At the end, I was proud of (the work) we had done,” Kraus said.
Krauss would like to pursue a career in which problem solving will be essential.
Lessing hopes this year’s successful debut performance will inspire future MUHS students to make the Moody’s competition an annual undertaking.
“They now know that we can not only compete (in Moody’s), but they can be successful in it,” Lessing said.
SCHOLARS’ BOWL
Meanwhile, Scholars’ Bowl has already become an annual tradition for MUHS. Dozens of students express interest each year, and MUHS fields multiple teams in the early stages of the competition.
“All those teams do well,” Lessing noted.   THE MIDDLEBURY UNION High School Scholars’ Bowl team recently made it to the state semifinals. The Tiger team lost to the eventual champion.
Courtesy photo
The Tigers answered their way into the top four in the Scholars’ Bowl state tourney held at the University of Vermont. The MUHS team of Henry Ganey (captain), Joshua Bechhoefer, Howlett and Eaton beat Champlain Valley Union High School, 385 to 335, in a quarterfinal, before falling in the semis to eventual champion Essex High School, 460 to 280.
Since 1983, the Scholars’ Bowl has offered a fast-paced, question-and-answer competition for students throughout the state, challenging them on a variety of subjects ranging from math to geography. Middlebury has consistently finished in the top ranks of the tourney during all eight years that Lessing has coached the team.
MUHS’s performance in last year’s Scholars’ Bowl earned the team a trip to Chicago, where it took fifth place out of 80 teams in the 2016 Small School National Championship Tournament, commonly referred to as the “quiz bowl.” This year’s team also qualified for the nationals, but a lack of funds is preventing the squad from competing.
Next year’s MUHS Scholars’ Bowl team will have some extra motivation: Beat Essex, the team that not only ended this year’s run, but has taken the championship four out of the last five years.
“They have something of a dynasty going,” Lessing said. “I thought we might get them this year, but it didn’t play out that way. Maybe next year.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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