Ward Melville High School senior Ben Proothi, 17, left, holds...

Ward Melville High School senior Ben Proothi, 17, left, holds the first place trophy from Brookhaven National Laboratory Regional Science Bowl. Phil Medina, a Ward Melville physics teacher, advises the school's team. Credit: Morgan Campbell

It's a good thing Ben Proothi knew something about sodium and potassium.

With the clock ticking down earlier this month during the annual Science Bowl at Brookhaven National Laboratory, the 17-year-old Ward Melville High School senior kept his cool when faced with a question about the potentially explosive chemical combination.

He said he barely broke a sweat when he gave the correct answer, which helped Ward Melville defeat more than a dozen other teams.

"The answer was really simple in the end," Proothi told Newsday. "If you take high school chemistry at all, it's something that should come to you somewhat quickly and it's pretty simple.

"I went with my gut on that and it worked."

Thanks to Proothi and his teammates — Rithik Sogal, Anna Xing, Benjamin Zhang and Michael Melikyan — Ward Melville will move on to the National Science Bowl finals from April 27 to May 1 in Washington, D.C. 

The East Setauket school wasn't the only school in the Three Village district to achieve bragging rights in the Feb. 2-3 regional competition at the Upton laboratory.

A squad from Robert C. Murphy Junior High School in Stony Brook finished second in the contest's middle school competition, losing only to a school that operates on the Hunter College campus in Manhattan.

Students in both tournaments faced rapid-fire questions on topics such as biology, chemistry, math, astronomy and computer science. Players generally had 20 seconds — or as little as five seconds — to compute complex equations using only notebooks and their brains. No calculators or search engines allowed.

"It's like trivia on steroids," Proothi said.

The contests were designed to test students' puzzle-solving skills, Amanda Horn, a Brookhaven Lab educator who coordinated the events, said in a news release. Some competitors took tours of the lab and met with scientists and interns, she said.

"This competition provides students with a unique opportunity to show off their science skills and knowledge, and learn about the Lab as well as the [U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the lab]," she said. 

Phil Medina, a Ward Melville physics teacher who advises the school's team, credited the students for their success. Medina said he mainly sits back at after-school team meetings and watches them practice.

"What they do is give each other tests," he said. "This is what they do for fun."

The junior high students said they faced questions based on 9th- and 10th-grade biology, but weren't intimidated.

"They weren't too difficult," Harry Gao said. "You just have to be faster [answering questions] than the other team."

The Murphy school team included Gao, Gabrielle Wong, Willem van der Velden, Menghan Tang and Kayla Harte, all 13.

Harte said that when confronted with a tough question, she relied on her instincts.

"You have that self-doubt," she said. "You go with your logical gut."

The club also finished second in 2022, students said, adding this year's outcome showed last year's results were no fluke.

"First place would have been better," Harte said. "Doing it two years in a row shows it's not a coincidence."

Are you smarter than a high schooler?

Here are sample questions from previous Science Bowls.

Question:

What is the adjective for the type of materials that will create an induced magnetic field opposite to an externally applied magnetic field?

Answer:

Diamagnetic

Question:

A horizontal force of 90 newtons is applied to a 20-kilogram block that is initially at rest on a horizontal surface. The coefficient of static friction between the block and the surface is 0.5 and the coefficient of kinetic friction of 0.2. In meters per second squared, what is the acceleration of the block?

Answer: 0

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Energy/Brookhaven National Laboratory

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