By Maggie McManis
If you were to walk into Sarita Cooper’s science classroom at Korematsu Elementary School on a Thursday after school between January and May, you would find the excitement of learning circulating in the air.
And with good reason. The students here — members of Korematsu’s Nature Bowl teams — love their science. In fact, the two teams — one for students in grades 3-4, another for grades 5-6 — breezed through the semifinal rounds of the annual Nature Bowl to move on to the finals, which take place Saturday.
Nature Bowl, a competition sponsored by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, involves students learning life science concepts and then competing with that knowledge against other children in their age groups. Locally, students compete in the semifinal round at the Yolo Basin Foundation headquarters.
Korematsu’s success in the competition is nothing new. Cooper, who has been coaching teams for 15 years, says, “Almost every year one of my teams makes it past the semifinal competition.”
She is clearly leaving her footprint on Nature Bowl history, but sometimes success can breed its own set of problems.
This year, for example, Cooper had more than 45 Korematsu students eager to join. But Nature Bowl rules allow only seven students per team. Cooper stretched that rule by bringing 10 students per team, but even then, she had to turn down many eager kids.
“I had to eliminate (kids), which I absolutely hate to do, especially in the name of learning,” Cooper said. “So, I just made a lot of work for them and they all did it.”
She tested them on their ability to perform the sorts of tasks required in the competition and based her final rosters on their performance. It apparently paid off, as both of her teams took first place in their age divisions at the semifinal competition and are moving on to the state finals at 8 a.m. Saturday at Sacramento State.
To prepare, the teams meet weekly after school to practice for the big show. Two Davis High School students — Amelia Stanley and Jaclyn Miras — are assisting Cooper with the teams this year.
“This is the first year I have had interns and I am definitely going to do it again,” Cooper said. “It has truly been a lifesaver this year.”
During a typical practice, students can be found acting out the behaviors of herbivores and discussing pesticides and trivia specific to California wetlands.
They also have created and presented enviro-mercials — essentially one-minute commercials about an environmental issue in the region, its causes and effects, and possible solutions — that required interviewing experts in the field.
And they collaborate to prepare for all the nature and environmental trivia they will be expected to know.
Three of the five main Nature Bowl activities are question-and-answer competitions. Bell Ringers is similar to “Jeopardy,” with students needing to answer questions about different topics. Nature Investigations requires students to become detectives searching for clues to answer questions, while Team Problems requires students to construct a food chain according to a series of questions and an assortment of materials, including small plastic animals.
The fifth activity of the competition involves a relay in which children display their knowledge by sorting through a variety of objects that satisfy the requirements of the challenge.
Cooper says she keeps coming back to coach Nature Bowl because of the way it integrates fun with the elementary science curriculum and also because of the emphasis on reasoning, rather than just simple right and wrong answers. For example, if a student doesn’t provide the expected answer, but provides a reasonable explanation for the answer she gave, judges will accept the answer.
Cooper also appreciates the nature of competition itself.
“It’s really a great thing because it doesn’t have an emphasis on winning, and the competition (aspect) is really played down,” she said.
And though the competition isn’t fierce, Korematsu students are still hoping to win. Cooper has some sixth-graders competing who have been on the team since third or fourth grade, and winning at the finals would be a great way to conclude their elementary school years.
Students competing for Korematsu include Adam Perry, third grade; Anoushka Chander, Braeden Ingram, Henri Schulz, Mason Johnstone, Connor Porthouse, Rayyan Islam, Connor Tang, Emily Jiang and Shruthi Karthik, fourth grade; Joshua Lubin, Robert Yang and Justin Yeung, fifth grade; and Aakash Mishra, Janet Liu, Shobha Khanna, Emily Perry, Sophia Kaloper, Jerry Guo and Arvind Ramakrishnan, sixth grade.
— Maggie McManis is a student at Da Vinci Charter Academy.