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NETL’s ‘Science Bowl Heroes’ Step Up To Inspire Tomorrow’s Engineers and Scientists
Kylee Underwood, Jessica Mullen, Fan Shi, Ranjani Siriwardane, and Dustin Brown

Some use their expertise to ask complex science- or math-based questions. Others carefully monitor the clock to ensure answers are provided within the prescribed time limit, accurately tally scores during each fast-paced round or complete other important tasks.

Regardless of their specific duties, the volunteers who serve in these and other capacities at the annual NETL Science Bowl competitions, which began this month, all share an unwavering commitment to help the Lab present exciting, high-quality tournaments that generate enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and encourage middle and high school students to explore STEM-related careers.

“I remember competing in Science Bowl as a high school student. This event helped me and continues to help today’s students understand how important STEM is and how much opportunity there is for those with

STEM skills and knowledge,” said NETL’s Kylee Underwood, federal project manager,Kylee Underwood Research Planning and Delivery, who has volunteered for nine consecutive years at the West Virginia regional contests.

In her role as a volunteer coordinator, Underwood makes sure her fellow volunteers are trained and up to speed on their assignments. During the recent 2023 West Virginia competition, which was held Feb. 3 for middle school teams and Feb. 4 for high school teams, Underwood was busy resolving last-minute issues and making sure all volunteer positions were filled for the start of every round.

For Underwood, volunteering for the Science Bowl helps cultivate the next generation of engineers and scientists.

“The competitions are a way to help young people reach their full potential and to develop the talent we need to do the research of tomorrow. It’s easy to encourage and get excited about athletics, but events that make academics fun, exciting and competitive are so important to encourage kids to keep learning,” Underwood said.

For the third consecutive year, the 2023 NETL-sponsored regional Science Bowls for West Virginia and the upcoming western Pennsylvania competition, which will be held Saturday, Feb. 25, for high school students, and Saturday, March 4, for middle school students, were scheduled as virtual events held via Zoom to protect the health and safety of students, coaches and volunteers.

The virtual format hasn’t diminished the need for volunteers or dissuaded them from participating. Sixty-five volunteers supported the West Virginia Science Bowl while 100 volunteers are scheduled to help during the Western Pennsylvania Science Bowl.

“Every year, NETL staff at all levels of our organization step up to serve as scorers, question judges, timekeepers and in other roles,” said Ken Mechling, NETL’s lead coordinator for the Science Bowls. “Our volunteers are true ‘Science Bowl Heroes.’ The success of the Science Bowl rests almost entirely on the quality of the volunteers.”

NETL has sponsored the regional Science Bowl for more than three decades. Jessica Mullen, technology manager, Jessica MullenRare Earth Elements and Critical Materials, has been a volunteer for 15 years. 

“Science Bowl is a valuable opportunity for students to participate on a team and experience a competitive environment that focuses on ‘brain’ sports (such as the sciences and math). Academic extracurriculars such as Science Bowl challenge students to think critically, quickly and precisely,” Mullen said.

The volunteers also know how to calm the students’ nerves during the competition and share a little about themselves and their careers. “The five-minute self-introduction is the best part of my Science Bowl volunteer experience. During this short period of time, I, along with other volunteers, share fun stories from our research projects and offerFan Shi some advice about how to prepare for STEM-related careers. The kids tell us about their goals and dreams and why science, technology, engineering and math are of great interest to them,” said Fan Shi, a chemical engineer. 

Ranjani SiriwardaneRanjani Siriwardane, a research scientist, has volunteered as a scientific judge for more than 20 years. 

“It’s important to encourage our high school and middle school students to pursue STEM careers, and Science Bowl helps them improve their science and math knowledge in a more fun way that also encourages teamwork. It’s great to see them having fun while expanding their knowledge. Students also get an idea about STEM careers and how rewarding they could be,” Siriwardane said.

Dustin Brown, federal project manager on NETL’s Point Source Carbon Capture Team, has served as a Science Bowl recognizer and scorekeeper. His experience has convinced him that there are Dustin Brownmany talented students eager to explore STEM careers.

“I love seeing the competitive drive and teamwork that they bring to the table, and it helps me understand that we really do have an opportunity for a better future through these young men and women. I am honored to help lift them up so that in the future they can confidently explore the scientific unknown. Their success is our success,” Brown said.

NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By leveraging its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.