The stage lights were bright, the cameras were rolling and Maggie Gordon was facing a question about the mass of subatomic particles.
The West High School senior gave her answer – “up” and “down” quarks – and when told that she was correct, leaned back with a smile of celebration.
Gordon and three other West students were facing a difficult test on this particular November morning, but it didn’t come in the classroom. Instead, they were taping an episode of the Scholars Bowl, a tournament-style game-show competition whose 35th season will air on East Tennessee PBS starting on Monday, Jan. 7.
Each episode features head-to-head competitions between two schools from across the region, with students quizzed on a wide range of topics including science, history, math and current events. The winner advances to the next round of the tournament, and a champion is crowned at the end of each season.
In an interview, Gordon said the West team practices partly by watching past episodes of the show and trying to buzz in with answers before the contestants they’re watching. Her most difficult category is sports, while teammate Sami Isaac said he struggles with the category of literature.
And how do they overcome their weaknesses? “I just rely on Sami,” Gordon said. “It’s a team sport.”
“I just rely on Maggie,” Isaac said in reply.
Besides the academic knowledge, Scholars Bowl participants get an up-close education on the making of TV magic.
The PBS studio, located on Magnolia Avenue, was mostly darkened during the show’s taping, except for spotlights that hung from the ceiling and were trained on the stage. Four students from each school sat on a two-tiered podium, facing the studio cameras, while in-studio spectators could view the proceedings live or on monitors that showed the camera feeds.
Show host Frank Murphy kept the proceedings moving with a steady patter of wisecracks and commentary, displaying broadcasting chops from his career in radio and a sense of humor honed as an improv comic.
Before the show began, each student gave their name and a short bio, with Gordon noting that she’s a National Merit semifinalist and an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church.
“You don’t look old enough,” Murphy joked.
On this occasion, West was competing against a team from outside of Knox County, and while the results are a secret until the show airs, the WHS contestants put on a strong performance.
Afterward, math teacher Celeste White said she’s in her second year of coaching the team, although she mostly leaves the preparation up to the students.
White said she learns something new at each competition and enjoys “working with these kids whose passion is learning and competing and having fun.”
Students aren’t the only KCS connection to the Scholars Bowl. Ernie Roberts, the show’s executive producer, teaches AP statistics at Bearden High School.
Roberts said the station goes through nearly 4,200 questions per season and approximately 70 questions per show. He said many adults who watch like to test their knowledge against the students, and the Scholars Bowl is a good fit for the PBS mission of promoting education from the cradle to the grave.
“It’s a great chance to showcase the talents and academics of our schools,” he said.
Josh Flory is a multi-media specialist with Knox County Schools and writes this blog, Hall Pass, for the KCS website.