WANTED: Students with a desire to participate in the Academic Decathlon.
REQUIREMENTS: Must attend Union High School and be enrolled in the Academic Decathlon course taught by Mrs. Kerrie Michael. Candidates must have a desire to study a pre-determined topic and willingness to have their knowledge of said topic thoroughly tested in ten different academic disciplines, demonstrating their ability to perform well on multiple-choice examinations, essay writing and public speaking.
TANGIBLE BENEFITS: Benefits include all expenses paid for educational materials, an opportunity to represent Union High School in regional and state competitions and the ability to earn elective credits that count toward graduation. Participation in the course has the potential to create scholarship opportunities for students who choose to attend college after graduation.
OTHER BENEFITS: Course features a fun, family-like atmosphere taught by a Board-Certified instructor where students have the opportunity to meet new people and develop friendships previously thought not possible. The incorporation of tasty snacks while studying course materials is strongly encouraged.
While the text of this “advertisement” has never appeared on the classified pages of the local newspapers that cover Union High School, it offers a hint of the potential challenges and rewards awaiting local students who choose to participate in the Iowa Academic Decathlon.
The athletic version of the decathlon is an event that typically makes the news cycle once every four years. Those who follow the sport know that the event comprises ten track and field events held over a two-day period. Points are awarded to competitors based on their performance in each event. The individual with the highest cumulative point total at the conclusion of the competition is commonly referred to as the “World’s Greatest Athlete,” a term first used by King Gustav V of Sweden to describe American Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Olympic Games.
Similarly, the Iowa Academic Decathlon, a division of United States Academic Decathlon, is an academic competition comprised of ten events. Students from large and small schools around the state compete for awards, advancement, and scholarships. Preparation usually begins in August at the beginning of the school year and continues through the scrimmage in December, regional competition in January, state competition in March, and national competition in April.
When Kerrie Michael joined the Union High School staff in 2012, the school did not have an Academic Decathlon team and had not participated in the program for many years. Approaching school administration to express her desire to form a team, the answer she received was a surprising one. There was little interest in adding another coaching stipend to support the program as an extracurricular activity, the model many schools use throughout the state of Iowa to field their teams. Instead, wholehearted support was offered for Academic Decathlon to be offered as a course that any high school student at Union could take for an elective credit.
“It’s really great to have administrative support,” Michael stated, noting that some schools struggle to find available time to adequately prepare students for competition. Others must devote valuable time and energy to fund-raising efforts in order to pay for program materials and the costs associated with participating in the regional and state competitions.
For Michael, offering Academic Decathlon as a class is a perfect fit.
“It’s beautiful because here [at Union], everybody is in so many things. I wouldn’t be able to get them in after school, anyway. As a class, it works really well,” she said.
Academic Decathlon teams consist of up to 9 students, and each team has three divisions of three students: Honors, Scholastic, and Varsity. Divisions are determined by the grade point averages of the students as calculated from the student’s previous two school year grades in core courses, except freshmen, whose are calculated based on 8th grade core grades only. Students with a calculated USAD grade point average of 3.75 – 4.0 compete in the Honors division against other Honors students. Students with a calculated USAD grade point average of 3.00 – 3.74 compete in the Scholastic division against other Scholastic students, and students with a calculated USAD grade point average of 2.99 and below compete in the Varsity division against other Varsity students.
It is somewhat ironic that when it comes time to field an academic decathlon team, the most difficult slots to fill are often ones reserved for students whose grade point average (GPA) is less than 3.0. And woe to any student who tells Kerrie Michael they are not smart enough or don’t have a high enough GPA to take the Academic Decathlon course. She’ll let you know exactly where she stands on that topic.
“First of all, I tell them GPA doesn’t necessarily reflect intelligence.”
So what is the sales pitch for students who assume Academic Decathlon is an activity reserved for brainiacs or those with a GPA closer to 4.0 than 3.0? Michael has several.
“Food- the snacks. That helps a lot,” she says with a smile.
“I also tell them it’s more fun than a study hall… And they don’t believe it.”
Really. Academic Decathlon is more fun than a study hall?
“It is,” she replies firmly.
“I tell them that. I can’t really explain it, I say to them. You just have to experience it. And I will often tell them, ‘Try it for a trimester. Or try it for two weeks. And if you change your mind or decide it’s not for you, that’s fine. You’re more than welcome to try and find something else that does work for you.’”
It’s a rare occasion, Michael notes, that a student who tries it doesn’t come back, or doesn’t stick it out.
Senior Bobbie Hilmer got the sales pitch in 2014, though not from Kerrie Michael. Instead, it came from older sister, Katie, who was among some of the first students to take the new course at Union.
“You should try this,” she said to Bobbie, who followed her sister’s advice as a sophomore. Two years later, she’s very glad she did.
“It’s something a lot of schools don’t have. It’s unique to Union,” she said.
“It’s definitely taught me better study habits. It prepares you for public speaking and interviewing,” she added. And what has kept her coming back year after year?
“Mrs. Michael is the reason I’m still in it. She’s so much fun.”
Each year in March, the Academic Decathlon topic for the coming year’s competition season is announced. Along with the topic, the U.S. Academic Decathlon publishes some general information about the subject areas. The overall curricular theme for the 2016–2017 competition season was World War II.
In August 2016, as Kerrie Michael welcomed the largest group of students at Union High School to take the Academic Decathlon class, the curriculum they would study included the following:
SCIENCE: The science topic will be an introduction to atomic and nuclear physics and will include a section on the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb.
LITERATURE: The literature curriculum will include critical reading, one long work of literature, and selected shorter works. The long work of literature will be the novel Transit by Anna Seghers.
ART: The art curriculum will include a section on art fundamentals and will largely focus on the art of the World War II era.
MUSIC: The music curriculum will include basic elements of music theory and will focus on the music of the World War II era.
SOCIAL SCIENCE: The social science curriculum will cover World War II.
ECONOMICS: The economics curriculum will cover fundamental economic concepts, microeconomics, and macroeconomics and will also include a thematic section on the economic origins and impact of World War II.
MATHEMATICS: The mathematics curriculum will cover algebra and trigonometry.
Seniors Alek Stone and Keaton Newgren had heard various forms of the sales pitch, yet had resisted Michael’s previous recruiting efforts. That is, until they learned an important lesson about wagering with their Academic Decathlon instructor.
“If the subject is cool, we’ll join,” Stone recalled the pair telling Michael last year, declaring World War II as the topic that would get them to take the class.
“Well, low and behold, it [the theme for 2016-17] was World War II,” Stone revealed.
True to their word, the young men followed through with their promise to take the class. Competing in the Scholastic Division at the Regional Competition in January, both were major contributors on the team, helping Union post the third highest score for schools in their class. Newgren took home a silver award in Social Science and a bronze in Literature, while Stone was awarded golds in both Music and Science, a silver in Art and a bronze in both the Social Science and Interview categories.
“If I don’t try to make it fun, nobody will want to do it. The subject matter will sometimes sell them. Sometimes it’s the elective credit,” Michael said.
The Binder of Doom
At Union High School, the Academic Decathlon course is offered during the first and second trimesters of each school year. Beginning in August, students immerse themselves in the topic that serves as the over arching theme for the regional and state competitions that will be held in January and March. Students enrolled in the course are well aware that they will be tested in ten different disciplines, including seven that are tested by way of objective multiple choice examinations: Mathematics, Economics, Art, Music, Language and Literature, Social Science, and Science.
The remaining three disciplines, arguably the most daunting for student participants, are evaluated subjectively: Speech, Interview, and Essay.
With such a broad spectrum of material to cover, Kerrie Michael involves her students in the presentation of it. The “Binder of Doom,” is a massive three-ring binder that houses the bulk of the Academic Decathlon course materials. At the beginning of the trimester, students select ten pages from the binder they will teach to the entire class from the subject area of their choosing. Taking on the role of teacher requires students to have a greater understanding of the material they are presenting.
“I taught econ and math. Our strong people are even stronger because they are teaching it,” Bobbie Hilmer acknowledged.
The process also gives each student opportunities to improve their public speaking skills.
“I can always tell who taught what, because that’s their highest score on the test, inevitably. And they [the students] listen better if a student is teaching,” Michael said.
Not a Spectator Sport
The Union Academic Decathlon Team is not the first team from the high school to advance to a state competition this year. The school’s football and volleyball teams, for example, advanced to their respective state championship games last November. While quick to acknowledge their activity is not a spectator sport, the students representing Union at the State Academic Decathlon competition view their accomplishment as equally important as the athletic and fine arts achievements of their fellow students.
“In football and volleyball, they worked all year to make it to State. They went through game after game after game to get there. For us, its a one day thing. If you go in and have a bad day, that’s it. You don’t go to State,” Hilmer said.
In 2016, Union High School advanced to the State Academic Decathlon competition, where they placed fifth among smaller schools. In 2017, the team had higher aspirations, Hilmer admitted.
“Now that Mrs. Michael has built it up and she has confidence in us, we’re aiming for higher,” she declared.
Higher is exactly what they achieved. At the Academic Decathlon State Competition held March 4-5, Union placed third behind teams from South Central Calhoun and Grundy Center/Dike-New Hartford, their best showing to date.
In May, Kerrie Michael will say goodbye to a core group of seniors (including two World War II aficionados who wagered and lost a bet). It’s a group that has been instrumental in helping build the Academic Decathlon program at Union High School. While sad to see them go, she has the satisfaction in knowing their experience has, indeed, been more fun than a study hall and has left them imminently better prepared to greet the future that awaits them.
In Their Own Words…
Members of the Academic Decathlon team at Union High School were asked to finish the following sentence. Their responses follow:
“Thanks to Academic Decathlon…”
“I’ve made a family. Academic Decathlon has brought us together and it’s a place we’re all comfortable with and we’ve all opened up to each other.” ~Senior Bobbie Hilmer
“I have learned some real life skills, like how to do well in an interview, how to maintain eye contact and give speeches and how to get your point across.” ~Sophomore Hannah Michael
“I made friends with a lot of people that I really didn’t think I would be friends with. I never would have otherwise hung out with them. These people are all excellent and I almost missed out on meeting them.” ~Senior Alek Stone
“I’m probably not going to miss something more than I’ll miss Academic Decathlon. When I first heard about Academic Decathlon, I thought it would be interesting to try it. I’ve enjoyed every aspect of it. I’ve got to meet new people and build friendships. It’s something I’m going to miss.” ~Senior Jacob Worthen