Month: July 2018

Downingtown STEM Interview

Today’s interview is with Vishwa Shanmugam (VS), Rohan Vora, (RV), and Anish Gadgil (AG), three members of the Downingtown STEM Academy team that finished T-8 at the 2018 NAQT HSNCT and 18th at the 2018 PACE NSC. They ended the season ranked #1 in Pennsylvania.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

JW: How did you first get into playing quizbowl?

VS: Last year, we were contacted to play the Downingtown East Invitational. So we went there, did that, had a pretty good time, and then we discovered there were quizbowl forums. We signed up for Great Valley’s tournament the next month, and then Wissahickon, and ever since we’ve just played whatever we could. I had previously found NAQT’s website and Protobowl and stuff linked on our academic team study website, but we didn’t do anything with that—I had kind of assumed that NAQT was only for certain areas and our area just didn’t have anything.

RV: I remember we actually used to practice on NAQT pyramidal stuff, which wasn’t anything like the CCIU competition. It’s funny because every time we got to the bonuses packet we’d have no idea what to do, so we’d just skip those.

JW: What are the biggest differences between playing in your local academic competition and pyramidal quizbowl tournaments?

AG: Well, I think with the local format—they are speedchecks and there are three teams up against each other, so there isn’t really any cohesive strategy involved in playing them. There’s pretty much an element of randomness and luck. The biggest difference is that, flipping to pyramidal, you can actually begin to think critically about games, beyond just knowledge, about how to organize yourselves.

RV: And to take it in a bit of a different direction, I feel like through pyramidal, we were able to connect with many more people and make much more close friends, because pyramidal to me is more born out of passion for the game, and we basically just connect much more easily with the sort of people who are very much into this. You’d think the local competition would be more conducive to making friends, but we actually found that a lot of people were just playing that out of obligation.

VS: Yeah, and the quizbowl Facebook groups are all pretty active; people are really into that sort of stuff. Actual quizbowl tournaments are just more fun, like people are having more of a good time.

JW: How have you gotten involved in the quizbowl community and what is something you want people to know about it?

VS: The thing that people yell a lot about is insularity, but it’s also like, you can talk to people even if you’re not some 200 PPG star player. There’s definitely the [Illinois Quizbowl Memes] Facebook page, where you can just connect with random people, and the Quizpolling page, where there’s a lot of wholesome threads where you can just chill and talk to people.

AG: If you’re new to the community, and you’re maybe not like super duper good right off the bat, and you have a lot of inhibitions, it can be a little bit difficult—but people are nice and really approachable. Once you can get past that single barrier of inhibition when it comes to interacting with people in the community—I think that kinda just comes with time—then you’ll find it a lot easier to interact with the community at large.

RV: I’ve found that top players and very important community figures are a lot more approachable in quizbowl than in any other activity. Like, on the Pennsylvania Discord, for example, there could be some high schoolers just casually talking about Dragon Ball Z with Eric Mukherjee, who’s like this legendary player—you know, just stuff like that.

JW: What are some tips you would give to students in nonpyramidal local leagues who are interested in trying good quizbowl?

VS: Definitely check out what’s near you, and if there’s something near you, that’s always a great place to start.

AG: And if your program doesn’t already have a history of pyramidal quizbowl and you’re interested in doing that, try to incorporate more and more pyramidal elements in practices, try to encourage your memberships to grow larger, and push people towards going to tournaments and building a program that can support you throughout your pyramidal journey. Housekeeping in general is very important in addition to linking up with the community.

VS: It’s pretty easy to get your coaches to switch to practicing on pyramidal questions, because they’re often on similar material to nonpyramidal questions. And you can integrate it into your normal practice schedule.

RV: The great thing about pyramidal quizbowl is that it does rewards studying—and not only that, it’s worth studying for it. I personally found quizbowl much more enjoyable when I started studying for it, because I felt that my knowledge was being rewarded.

JW: How did you motivate yourselves to study so hard?*

VS: A lot of it was I realized I had started pyramidal in eleventh grade and I was like “wow, I have one year left of high school pyramidal quizbowl,” so I just spent a lot of my summer studying. I found that I really enjoyed reading packets—I’d find ways to read packets and look up stuff on Wikipedia on my laptop during school, as opposed to going home and having a rigorous three hour schedule or whatever.

AG: I would say that my experience is probably a little different from his, because on a personal level, I wasn’t really all that motivated to study until recently. The biggest thing for me was osmosis, because I was on a team that was gradually becoming more competitive and, being dragged into these upper echelons of quizbowl, I was being forced to scale up. In a weird way, the feeling of being left behind was a really big impetus to growing as a player.

RV: Through quizbowl, I ended up finding new interests, which helped me—that’s how I ended up studying, actually. Before quizbowl, I wasn’t somebody who was hugely into classical music, but since I acted as kind of an arts specialist for the team, I basically became a lot more into visual arts and compositional music and that sort of thing.

VS: I found I remembered that I really liked reading books, since I hadn’t done that for a few years before discovering quizbowl. I also tried to study in ways I enjoyed; I held off on the carding for a while, until I got to nats season, because carding isn’t something I can internally motivate myself to do.

JW: What was your study schedule like?*

VS: I really just didn’t have one. I read packets whenever I felt like it, I fell into random Wikipedia holes, and occasionally I picked up a book when I could motivate myself to. I don’t think you need a strict study schedule to be good, but if you’re one of the people who won’t study unless you have a schedule, maybe that helps.

AG: My motivation kinda fluctuated throughout the season, and unlike Rohan and Vishwa, I was a junior, so I had a lot of school-related deadlines close to nats season. So, as for me, as I couldn’t find time to make a regimented study schedule, so I incorporated studying in whatever ways I could. In general, I think that if you find something that’s conducive to your quizbowl personality and your schedule, there are many ways you can ensure consistent improvement.

RV: I’d read whenever I had time in school or at home, and if I was motivated to study I would read arts questions and arts content, and later if it came to my mind, I’d read into it more and look it up. I just tried to make quizbowl a part of my life, and that was my studying.

JW: What are your study tips for learning and remembering literature?*

VS: I think that it’s really worthwhile to read a lot of the short stuff. The time versus efficiency tradeoff on reading a summary of a poem versus reading the poem is kind of low. I definitely encourage you to read a lot of the stuff you can get through in one day—like, read a lot of plays and short stories. For remembering stuff, carding definitely helps if you’re a person like me that’s bad at character names or bad at obscure titles. But reading is the best way to get plot details, or using Sparknotes, or what have you.

JW: You played out of state quite a bit during the season—what do you think are the benefits of doing so?

RV: We got to go to this really nice Middle Eastern place in New Jersey, we don’t have that here.

AG: The biggest benefit for playing out of state is that certain tournaments become nexuses for highly competitive teams to go to. It’s very important to consider your team’s goals and motivations for doing so—if you are a team that is highly motivated to getting into higher levels of play, then it can be highly advantageous.

VS: I’ll go the less nerd response and say, it’s also just really fun to meet people outside your circuit. Like, it’s cool to see fresh faces, and some of my best friends are from adjacent circuits that don’t come to PA tournaments very often. If you do go out of circuit, you should bring snacks and give them to people and then they’ll be your friends.

JW: From the past season, is there any specific victory you’re especially proud of?

RV: There were a few games at the nationals and pre-nationals tournaments where all three of us had pretty significant scoring in a close game.

VS: Hunter was like that, I think we all got at least two buzzes against them and we won by a tossup at BEST.

AG: I think our game against BGA at HSNCT was somewhat similar.

VS: On a team level, beating TJ was a really nice achievement. It was a good experience to see us meshing together as a team and putting in the work to beat good teams.

JW: Do you have any memorable team moments or favorite stories you’d like to share?

RV: I don’t even know where to start. The three of us have so many memories of having political discussions, or making jokes, or car rides going to or from tournaments, or being at tournaments—there’s just so much silly stuff that’s happened over the years. In our match versus Hunter at BEST, they got an early lead on us and we were coming back. With just a few tossups to go, Chloe (from Hunter) called a timeout, and Vishwa and Anish and I went to the other side of the room. Vishwa’s leaning on this AC unit, and in the middle of discussing our strategy, Vishwa’s just like “hey I look really cool leaning on this radiator, don’t I?” and then we won the game. There’s so much really weird stuff going on like that. He didn’t even look that cool, but we won.

VS: The context was they were having this really serious discussion and I was like, wow, I want this to be a little more fun than that. Speaking of the car rides, we always listened to “Sofia” by Alvaro Soler.

AG: We don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but “Sofia” being a good song, that’s one commonality we have.

JW: Anish, what are your goals for next year’s STEM team?

AG: Rebuilding is going to prove to be a formidable challenge. But it’s not entirely bad; it’s sort of cliche but in many ways it is kind of a new beginning, and an opportunity for me to leave my mark and have us grow something at D-STEM. Results at nationals and whatnot are important and nice, and of course I’m not going to let that down, but I am going to try to focus on making quizbowl have a presence at our school amongst extracurriculars and turning D-STEM into a school that can consistently produce strong teams.

JW: Rohan and Vishwa, do you intend to continue playing and/or being involved with quizbowl in the future?

RV: I will continue to play quizbowl, and hopefully to do some outreach and some moderating; I do want to try to staff some Pennsylvania tournaments if I can. And I definitely want to be involved with New York City’s tournament circuit as well, to try and improve those to the standards we have in Pennsylvania.

VS: Same. A couple of Maryland people have talked to me about doing stuff with It’s Academic, which is like the local league version of Maryland’s nonpyramidal quizbowl. I’m also trying to help write and edit more stuff, so I’m writing for Terrapin this year and I’m editing for RMBAT. I’m also definitely going to play.

JW: Is there anything else you guys would like to add?

VS: I looked really cool leaning on that radiator. Don’t let Rohan lie to you about that.

AG: As a more serious statement, we’ve been playing for the better part of the last year and a half, and honestly I’ve had a blast. We’ve come together really close as a team and we’re forever indebted and in gratitude to the Pennsylvania circuit for making these things possible for us.

RV: I’m glad to have teamed with the two of you, and I don’t know if the same sort of chemistry could have happened with anyone else at STEM, or anyone else I know in quizbowl for that matter. I’m really happy with how our time as a quizbowl team has turned out, and I also do want to thank Pennsylvania quizbowl for helping to make us into a team that’s involved in quizbowl. And you guys can bet D-STEM quizbowl isn’t going anywhere; Downingtown STEM’s team is around here to stay. And I think that they’ll always be strong.

VS: Thanks, Franklin Mint! But really, big thanks to GPQB; we probably wouldn’t be playing quizbowl if we weren’t invited to Downingtown East’s tournament and if we didn’t find out about everything afterwards. It’s been a fun two years.

Thanks to Vishwa, Rohan, and Anish for participating in this interview!

-Jackie

*question submitted to our Instagram account

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The Rise of a Circuit, Pt. 1: Structural Changes

It was a slightly warm November day, and Phoenixville High school was caked in the glow of morning sunlight. Students collected in the cafeteria, many of them unaware of the exact nature of the tournament before them. Many had traveled from Maryland and New Jersey for the upcoming quizbowl activities, and just as many were representing their school for the first time that day. 36 teams registered, but only 34 appeared, for Downingtown STEM decided not to notify the TD their two teams were not coming. The staff was a mixed lot of inexperienced students, inexperienced coaches, one former coach that had been around the block, and one college player. While the day was fun, a few critical mistakes, particularly trying to do all the stats on one computer, caused several delays throughout the day. Most teams seemed to be enjoying their experience, but struggled with IS-questions at times. Focus and competitive intensity proved hit or miss. The tournament ended with an all Wilmington Charter match, as a spirited B team unseated a lackadaisical A team. Few of the teams bothered to talk to each other between games.

This particular tournament, from 2013, was the first high-school-hosted pyramidal tournament to ever happen in Philadelphia and its four collar counties. It had been proceeded the prior spring by a 24 team tournament at Manheim Township, up from 8 teams in 2012. Outside of these, if one wanted to play pyramidal quizbowl, one had to go to the well established but weak and scattered western circuit, anchored by college-run events, or look outside the state of Pennsylvania. The idea of high quality Pennsylvania quizbowl was a theoretical one, and indeed, many firsthand recollections from the period indicate the PA squads who ventured into other circuits being mocked. It is worth mentioning Phoenixville as a good example of what has changed in Pennsylvania quizbowl since. Delays have become rare, teams are experienced and extremely competitive, scores are high, drops have decreased, and out of state teams don’t win here often. What made this change possible? What might the rest of quizbowl learn from our example? This post will be the first of a two part series covering the rise to prominence of Pennsylvania in the quizbowl world. The first will focus on the structure and quizbowl practices of the circuit, and the second will focus on community building.

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For one, it must be stated upfront that Pennsylvania has not been unique in developing a circuit where a weak one existed five years ago. Florida and Nevada are also excellent examples of other young circuits, though neither has yet had the on the buzzer success of Pennsylvania’s past season or two. Other circuits that were already strong, such as California’s Northern and Southern halves, Ohio, and Illinois, have continued to improve. Counter to this, some circuits, such as the Washington DC area, the Carolinas, and Tennessee, have declined in national prominence while still producing some elite teams. What we can draw from Pennsylvania should not be taken as panacea for outreach woes, as others have been successful and may have done things different. However, we’ve gone from little to a lot in just about five and a half years’ time, so it might be worth analyzing the methods we used to get there.

The first step was simply a survey of what we had to work with in the area. How many academic teams were there, of any sort? What formats did they play? In the lead up to GPQB’s 2014 launch, we put an immense amount of man hours into simply learning all of the local high schools, compiling e-mails, and sending personalized invitations to teams all over the Philadelphia area. The process was often frustrating. Response rates for e-mail blasts are very low yield in quizbowl, as we are selling a little known activity and often going against similar competitions with short seasons and low investment from their schools. This step was important, however, for simply gathering up what we had. There were some great players waiting out there, and some dedicated coaches too. We needed all the help we could get, and having a critical mass of people was important for future steps.

Secondly, we had to galvanize places to start hosting more, and hosting with good practices. In 2012-14, there were events in Pennsylvania, but they were scattered and tended to be poorly run. Formats were non-standard and experimental, using 10 team card systems, odd tiebreakers, and poorly trained staff. A 10 round event often wouldn’t finish until 5 or 6 pm, and at times teams only got 6 or 7 rounds on the day. Even in the 2014-15 season, delays were frequent. However, with invested time, TDs began to improve their directing skills. We gradually saw the wane of “random teachers unaffiliated with quizbowl” as moderators, the impositions of training programs, and a concerted effort to get more alumni to staff. This has helped allow Pennsylvania’s circuit to develop in two key ways. For one, badly run tournaments turn off new to quizbowl schools as much as bad questions do, so eliminating inefficiencies allowed us to keep more teams around. Secondly, uniform standards are easily explainable. First time Pennsylvania hosts can now start their own events with relative ease, knowing what needs to be done and where to get resources. This was not always the case.

With better tournaments and a good grasp on what was already on the ground in Pennsylvania, effective localized outreach could occur. This has been our bread and butter. One consistent thing we’ve encountered in the state is that if you can put a tournament within an hour of a school, the chance they will try out pyramidal increases significantly. Many of our gains have been local teams that will only attend events at nearby schools and not travel; likewise, many of our losses have been from teams near tournaments that no longer occur. While large e-mail blasts were not high yield, directed local outreach by coaches at neighbor schools has proved much more effective at getting new schools on board. Similarly, access to a nearby advocate who can show a team the ropes has been extremely helpful. Chris Chiego’s work starting 7 or 8 teams in the city of Philadelphia by going in and actually visiting shows what an in-person visit and phone call can do.

It may be obvious, but it must be said that the biggest reason Pennsylvania quizbowl became better was dedicated students studying, and wanting to achieve at a high level on tough questions. A good setup helps facilitate teams becoming elite at quizbowl, but those of us working on running tournaments and inviting teams to them are only clearing the fields for others to tend to and harvest. Once we had few established programs, students had clearer standards of what to study and how to do it well (and shared them). Players saw the best and could strive to be it. We inherited State College from the old days. Their success between the late 90s and 2011 was incredible, but it’s hard to really appropriate them for “Pennsylvania Quizbowl” as we define it today. They mostly played far away and their success was at a different time where the idea of state level circuits was much more nebulous. Manheim Township and Winchester Thurston both emerged in the immediate period before circuit building set in, and both got good fast. In the last few years we have had the group of Chester County Teams, LVA, Delaware Valley, Friends Select, and most recently Allderdice take advantage of resources and combine them with competitive drive to have a notable national finish. Having teams to prove the model worked was critical in giving us something to sell to other teams. That being said, we are extremely happy to have teams less interested in performing well at nationals as well. Schools that just show up three or four times a year to learn and have fun provide a backbone for the circuit and provide a fresh perspective on how the game can be written and organized.

Accompanying student drives for success, GPQB and individual teams worked to increase our visibility within wider quizbowl off the buzzer. Pennsylvania acquired a gradual social media presence between 2015 and today, between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Discord. I think our visibility was limited with the older guard of quizbowl during the first few years, as few Pennsylvanians carved out much of a forum presence. But, our high schoolers have clearly carved out an big niche in what I’ll dub “new quizbowl media,” places like Illinois Quizbowl Memes, Quizpolling Purposes, and off-forum chatrooms. We had good players in 2015 and 2016, but none achieved national attention. This past season, we had bonafide quizbowl celebrities. This, as much as anything, has solidified our place as a region everyone considers when they look at the lay of the land.

A final but crucial step to circuit building is the still ongoing process of what I call  “harmonization.” I define this as getting all tournament hosts, moderators, coaches, and even nearby parties in other states on the same page to produce optimal scheduling and distribution of resources and time. It doesn’t make sense to schedule two events near each other on the same day, or even back to back weekends. This burdens the staffer corps, which has been very generous in helping build Pennsylvania quizbowl up and will be talked about at length in Part 2. Key sets like SCOP and IS sets need to be distributed properly to cater to Pennsylvania’s three circuits.* The founding of a coaches association and the continued involvement of outreach gurus will hopefully help this, but there are still some overlaps to deal with.

Circuit building is a never-ending process. Of the 800 or so high schools in the state, only 80 played a pyramidal invitational in the past season, and of those only 50 did it regularly. The last five years have not made Pennsylvania a pyramidal haven to the level we’d like. However, we have established a base stability that produces top teams regularly and provides hundreds of students every year with the opportunity for fair play on good questions and fun times with friends. We have large national recognition for what our players have done on the buzzer and what our alumni have done to circuit-build. This is the legacy of the first era of Pennsylvania quizbowl, and also the first chapter in a long story of amazing things.

-Ben Herman

* (Pennsylvania essentially has three major groups of teams that play each other frequently and the other two groups infrequently: the “extended Southeast” of the Philadelphia Suburbs and Dutch Country, the Northeast including the Lehigh Valley, and the Western half of Pennsylvania. There are a few teams that shuttle between these regions but they tend to be ones that play a lot.)