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Oakland Mills' It's Academic team wins first quiz bowl tournament

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The It's Academic team at Oakland Mills High School has long been successful, consistently ranking among the best quiz bowl teams in the country and seldom placing lower than fourth in any tournament.

It's a solid, steady showing, but the group had never won a tournament — until Feb. 22, that is. That's when the team from the Columbia school placed first at the Central Maryland Quiz Bowl Championship at Centennial High School, beating a handful of other Howard County teams and students from Richard Montgomery High School in Montgomery County — a team that always gives Oakland Mills a run for its money, said senior Paul Kirk-Davidoff.

The win boosted the team to the 21st spot on a list of best quiz bowl teams in the country, and qualified Oakland Mills for the Maryland State Championships in April. The team has already qualified for two national tournaments.

It's been an extraordinary year for the team so far, said Oakland Mills teacher and It's Academic adviser Casey Retterer.

"They've been a good team, and they've known they're a good team," Retterer said. "But no matter how good your record is, you still care who's the champion. It's nice that they've won something."

About 10 or so students participate in the after-school quiz club. The group is named for the WJZ-TV show, and while the team has appeared on that show and is progressing through tournament play, the team operates under a larger umbrella.

Most tournaments aren't directly connected to each other, said Isaac Kirk-Davidoff, Paul's twin. They're more like stand-alone events, he said. The team competes in one or two tournaments a month, Retterer said, sometimes going as far as Northern Virginia or Pennsylvania on the weekends.

"Some schools just do the TV show, but others, like us, go and do other tournaments," said freshman Rosa Kirk-Davidoff, Paul and Isaac's younger sister. "These (non-TV) questions are harder."

A sample question provided by the Harvard University Fall Tournament, used by Oakland Mills when it hosted a tournament last month, would indicate that's true: "A follow-up to this experiment involved a parallel-plate capacitator that was charged while connected to a fine-torsion fiber. ... For 10 points, name this experiment that disproved the existence of a luminiferous aether that mediates the motion of light."

The answer is the Michelson-Morley experiment.

But you don't have to be a genius to join It's Academic, said sophomore Harrison Baldwin.

"I know a lot of random facts," he said. "I know a lot of sports stuff, and I watch a lot of TV. This isn't for someone who doesn't know anything, like you have to have a good base of knowledge, but it's not like you have to be an AP student."

It's good to have generalists like Baldwin on a team, Paul Kirk-Davidoff said, or to fill your team with specialists. The most important quality held by an It's Academic team member though, is an "intellectual curiosity," said his brother. Isaac Kirk-Davidoff said he has notebooks filled with "illegible handwriting," writing things down that interest him, or reminders to look something up. His books-to-read list is largely inspired by questions at quiz bowl tournaments. If a book sounds interesting, he said, he wants to read it.

"If you've ever thought something you learned once was interesting, and you want to learn more, it's for you," Isaac Kirk-Davidoff said. "It's not even about the competition, but about you finding fun in learning."

That was what drew senior Cody Rowe to the team. Last year in a physics class, he was learning about Eratosthenes of Cyrene, the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria who discovered how to measure the circumference of the earth. Rowe was hoping the next lesson would cover Aristarchus of Samos, who around the same time as Eratosthenes, presented the first known model of the solar system in which the earth orbited the sun. When Rowe told Retterer this, Retterer told him to join the It's Academic team.

"Paul and Isaac had been bugging me for a long time to do it, but Mr. Retterer gave me that last push," Rowe said.

Ultimately, the club caters to students who want to showcase their talents and their love of learning, Retterer said.

Freshman Kayla Burch-Strong joined because "it's a group thing," and she feels like she's learning more.

"You might not know an answer, but if you hear it from someone else, you're still learning," she said. "It expands your knowledge, and if I don't know something, I want to know it."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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