One cell of a challenge

HOUGHTON – The best biology students and teachers from around the Upper Peninsula congregated Wednesday at Michigan Technological University for the 24th annual Department of Biological Sciences Bioathlon.

The day-long competition pitted 16 teams of four students against each other to tackle the same biology problems in dissection, molecular biology, field identification and medical laboratory science.

“Our real goal is to try to emphasize the importance of biological sciences, but anything we can do to support science in general, as well as give them a positive experience about the college,” said Jeff Lewin, coordinator of the bioathlon. “… We want the best schools to stand out.”

While none of the students involved were allowed to have formal class work in biology beyond a traditional sophomore general biology course, it was clear from the winning teams that informal training was just as important.

Students from A.D. Johnston High School in Bessemer won the competition, even after leaving before 6 a.m. Wednesday morning to make it for the 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. event.

“It helped being in the fresh air right away,” said team member Zack Mazurek, who said the team tackled the field identification challenge first near the Michigan Tech Trails.

After that hour-long challenge, the team headed to the Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics building for its next two challenges, dissecting and labeling parts of a turtle, and then identifying parasites under a microscope. They wrapped up the day with a microbiology challenge in the Dow Environmental Sciences and Engineering building, which is also where the awards presentation was held.

“It’s tiring, but really good,” said team member Valerie Rowe, whose father David Rowe was coaching Bessemer’s team for the 20th time. “I thought it’d be harder. I came in thinking we might not win, but just try our best. It went really well.”

Jess Mazzon and Molly Wieringa were also on the winning team.

David Rowe said by virtue of participating in the competition, his students don’t have to take the final exam for his biology class, but he does expect them to attend multiple practices, using a three-ring binder full of content to study.

The system works, as evidenced by Bessemer’s fourth victory and seventh placement in the top three under Rowe’s guidance.

“It’s just an outstanding day. It’s a great competition and we love coming here,” David Rowe said. “It’s one of my favorite days of the year.”

Kris Raisanen Schourek, coach of Hancock’s second-place team, shared those sentiments, but it was a bitter-sweet feeling for her, having coached in all 24 bioathlons, with Wednesday being her last. After this school year, she will be retiring after 40 years of teaching.

“I’m going to miss it,” she said. “It feels strange because I love teaching, I’m having a wonderful year, I’ve got great students, they’ve worked hard. … We’ve placed first or second five years in a row now, so the kids take it very seriously.”

Andrew Bess, Kaylor Holmstrom, Matt Sanregret and Aspen Stroud were on the second-place team, and they got there by writing essays, which were reviewed and ranked by last year’s bioathlon team members. Schourek just tallied the rankings and picked the four best. The students practice regularly, during lunch or after school.

“The bioathlon experience has several times made a difference for students,” said Schourek, who is the science department chair at Hancock High School, and also an art teacher. “It’s maybe made them a little more interested in biological sciences. … The very first bioathlon, two of the people on that team decided to sign up for Advanced Placement Biology and be lab partners with each other. One of them is now a research scientist. It’s really made a difference for kids.”

The day also has an impact on the teachers, and while Wednesday’s competition was in full swing, teachers from the district took part in an interactive workshop taught by Stacy Cotey, academic advisor of Biological Sciences, called “What’s Up with the Weather? Climate Change and Aquatic Life in the Great Lakes.”

It featured a tour of Tech’s Great Lakes Research Center in the morning, and discussion of possible classroom activities for classrooms exploring the effects of changing climate on aquatic organisms in the afternoon.

“The biology teachers, this is our favorite day of the year,” Schourek said. “It is a wonderful opportunity just for us to network with each other. … Several of my colleagues here (like Rowe) said it’s the day we look forward to.”

Houghton High School’s team, coached by Alex Gerborkoff, finished third. Team members were Brittany Coombs, Kyra Neufeld, Julia Menzel-Smith and Isaac Stone.

Each member of the first-, second- and third-place teams received a small cash award, along with a plaque. Each student participating in the competition received a certificate of participation and a bioathlon T-shirt.

Other schools participating were from Baraga, Calumet, Chassell, Dollar Bay, Ironwood, Jeffers, Lake Linden-Hubbell, L’Anse, Marquette, Negaunee, Wakefield-Marenisco, Watersmeet and West Iron County.

The 16 teams rotated between the four problems, with four working on any one problem at a time. Each problem accounted for a score of 100 points, with a 400-point competition maximum.

It takes about 20 to 30 people, according to Lewin, to put on the competition.

“We’re really proud of this competition,” he said. “Next year will be our 25th anniversary, and I expect it to continue on.”