Have a question about the Antarctic circumpolar current? Need to identify whales or differentiate between types of underwater vehicles? The five students on the Canterbury School of Florida's 2009 Ocean Bowl team are the people to ask.
The St. Petersburg trivia team, composed of Christine Hammerschmidt, 17, Sarah Realbuto, 16, Annie Ritch, 17, Clark Gairing, 17, and Bronwyn Gairing, 17, took first place in the Spoonbill Bowl, the regional competition for Florida high schools in the Tampa Bay area.
Canterbury has been competing in the Ocean Bowl for three years and had never even reached the semifinal round at past regionals. They're now headed to Washington, D.C., for the national contest in April.
The team won iPod nanos at the Spoonbill Bowl. If they make it into the top four out of the 25 teams at nationals, they'll win an educational trip to a location like Hawaii, Costa Rica or Bermuda.
For now, though, they're just celebrating what they've already achieved. The team's goal had been to make it to the semifinal round.
"We weren't expecting to win," said Bronwyn Gairing.
This very lack of expectations seems to be part of Canterbury's recipe for success.
"I think that what helped us in the final rounds was there was just no pressure," said Realbuto. But not feeling a lot of pressure doesn't mean the team hasn't been working hard.
The students have been meeting with their coach, Dan Otis, on Tuesday lunch hours to study and practice since September. They try to make their sessions similar to the competition format, using buzzers just like the ones in the contest. "Mr. Otis asks us questions, and if we don't know the answer, he gives us little snippets so we learn," said Ritch.
Individually, each student acts as a specialized expert in one of five fields of focus: geology, chemistry, biology, physical properties and technology.
The four juniors and one senior do plenty of studying on their own time. As the national bowl approaches, they said they expect to do a lot more of this.
Their regular coursework comes in handy as well. "Originally, I was the only one with marine science (class) on the team," said Clark Gairing, who has been on the team for the past three years. But this year, as Realbuto explained, "all of us are in at least one science class that ends up helping us in competition."
The inverse is true as well, said Otis. He sees participation in Ocean Bowl positively affecting the students outside of competition. "It helps them in their other classes and it helps them be more confident in their scientific knowledge," he said.
Mac Hall, head of school, said he's thrilled with the team's success, noting that the school's location makes the Ocean Bowl an especially worthwhile pursuit. "We want the kids to understand the area where we live," he said.
Hall attributes the success to an excellent marine studies curriculum and staff, supportive parents and kids who are excited and interested. "All that wrapped into one, we've got a really strong program," he said.
Whatever the cause is, it's not just Ocean Bowl that's flourishing. All of the Ocean Bowl team members except Bronwyn Gairing are also part of the Envirothon team, a similar ecological jeopardy contest for high schools.
On Wednesday, Canterbury's Envirothon team traveled to Citrus County, where they took first place out of about 60 teams. Team members won a $1,000 scholarship, but unfortunately that team won't be able to move on to the regional level, as the next Envirothon contest conflicts with the National Ocean Bowl. Canterbury's second-place team will take their place.
For now, the team is concentrating on studying and maintaining their laid-back edge. "Our goal is to have fun," said Clark Gairing, although he added, "winning would be great."