Members of the Canyon del Oro High School Academic Decathlon team have made a game out of answering tough questions:
1) Which of the following is NOT an intaglio method of printmaking - etching, woodcut, drypoint, lithograph or mezzotint?
2) A judgment about the fairness of a proposed welfare policy is an example of: normative economics, marginal analysis, positive economics, comparative economics or marginal physical product?
3) According to Michael D. Lemonick, what is the average depth of the ocean: .3 miles, 1.3 miles, 2.3 miles, 3.3 miles or 4.3 miles?
Studying up to four hours a night for two major competitions a year, the decathlon experience molds above-average high school students into something more. The result is a group of young academics who are more intelligent and more self-assured than one would expect from a group their age.
They are outspoken, confident in their individual intelligence and reveling in the strength of collective knowledge.
"Decathlon is its own little world," team member Kasey Thomas says. "It's kind of fun to be feared and respected by other (decathlon teams)."
Storming through regional competition, the decathletes have managed to break the stranglehold of University and Catalina Foothills high schools, the two powerhouses of the Southern Arizona decathlon world. In this year's regional event, CDO obliterated the competition, crowning themselves champions for the second year in a row.
Behind the success of the CDO decathletes is a teacher and coach who would rather downplay his impact on their achievement than boast about his own role in continued success.
But where coach Chris Yetman's shyness kicks in, the nine-member squad's sincerity and admiration take over.
"He is the reason we do so well. He is the teacher. He is the team," Thomas says. It's a sentiment echoed by everyone on the squad.
The head of the school's mathematics department, Yetman is a 15-year veteran of CDO. While he didn't take over the leadership position of Academic Decathlon until 1999, Yetman's reputation as a mentor with the ability to bring forth amazing results for students of all abilities has been sound for years.
"I thought I hated math and convinced myself I was bad at it," senior Meghan DeWitt said. She never considered honors mathematics classes as a freshman at the school, fearing that poor grades would hurt her college possibilities.
"Yetman showed me how to like math and when I stopped hating it so much I realized I was actually pretty good at it," she said.
DeWitt, who has consistently led the team through regional and state competitions, plans on attending Brigham Young University next year to pursue a mathematics degree.
According to CDO Assistant Principal Ed Moody, students outside of decathlon have repeatedly requested to be placed in Yetman's classes for fear of not succeeding in their studies without him.
"The shortest explanation I can give for why students' respond to him the way they do is simple: He is that good," Moody said.
In addition to recognizing Yetman's track record of success in teaching mathematics to CDO students and leading the decathlon team, Moody says he believes the teacher has a unique ability to connect with students in a positive way.
"He has a gift, a way of finding that part of each student that thirsts for understanding," Moody said.
For the decathletes, Yetman leads an elective class during the school year to canvass the material for upcoming competitions.
The yearly competitions consist of a complex understanding in 10 unique categories, connected by a single theme. Last year's theme was "Understanding the Natural World." Students are made aware of the theme at the end of the previous school year and are provided topics and study materials throughout the year by U.S. Academic Decathlon. As information is provided, participants are given more areas to master and the range of information likely to be covered as competition grows.
While every participant in the nation is studying the same topics, it is unknown exactly what information will be included in the testing on those topics.
During competition, students compete individually in 10 areas: art, economics, literature, mathematics, science, Super Quiz, essay, interview and speech. While the first five categories involve rigorous multiple-choice tests, the latter three categories are judged subjectively. Only Super Quiz combines members of each team in a direct competition with representatives from other schools. Combined team and individual totals determine who wins and who loses.
The result is the need for every member of the team to have a comprehensive understanding of how each category relates to the theme and how categories relate to each other.
"The goal of the competition is for students to take an active role in learning," Yetman says. "But the reason for the structure of the competition is to show them how knowledge on every subject imaginable is interconnected and to make students want to find out how."
While success in competition has not been at the forefront of Yetman's motivations for getting students to learn, it has become a trademark of his leadership with the CDO decathlon team.
The team placed 20th in the 1999 state competition. By 2000, the team was third in its region and seventh at state. In the last two years of competition, CDO has won regionals soundly and finished in the top four at state. To date, the team has racked up more than 100 medals in regional and state competitions.
"The students here are so talented I am pretty convinced that, if allowed under the rules, I could have entered two teams and taken first and second at regionals." Yetman said.
Even with about half the regional and state competitors at CDO graduating in May, there is no shortage of students interested in being a part of Yetman's team. About 45 interested students will vie for only nine positions for competition.
While Yetman says he believes the large amount of students interested in the elective class is a reflection of the caliber of students at CDO, current decathletes say the most compelling motivation to be a part of Academic Decathlon is Yetman himself.
"You know that teacher you talk about forever after you graduate?" Senior decathlete Vikram Jain put it bluntly. "That's Yetman."
SAMPLE QUESTIONS FROM THE DECATHLON
After a year of intense study, academic decathletes become keepers of vast sums of knowledge about a myriad of subjects. Following are sample test questions from the U. S. Academic Decathlon practice tests.
1. There is NO attribution for The Robe, Emperor's 12-symbol, because:
a. artists in that period remained anonymous
b. the museum simply forgot to record it
c. part of the edge of the robe is missing
d. the signature is too difficult to read
e. no art histories were written in that period.
2. Which of the following impressionists tried pointillism:
3. Johannes Brahms wrote MOST of his piano works for which artist?
4. How are early Romantic trends BEST defined in Beethoven late chamber music:
a. use of traditional forms
b. writing in a more popular style
c. writing in a more introspective style
d. use of chromatic harmonies
e. writing more programmatically
5. When energy is demanded as a result of people's demand for goods or services that use energy, it is a(n):
a. secondary demand
b. marginal demand
c. industry demand
d. derived demand
e. primary demand
6. The Federal Reserve System would use which of the following to regulate the level of economic activity?
a. wage and price controls
b. tax increases and decreases
c. regulatory reform
d. money supply
e. government spending
7. All of the following observations about sea anemones are accurate EXCEPT:
a. they are composed of 95 percent water
b. they have no heads
c. the foot of the pedal disk anchors the anemone
d. they lack mobility in water
e. the polyps reproduce asexually
8. Colleen Cavanaugh of Harvard University experienced a delightful epiphany when she hypothesized that tubeworms:
a. live in hydrothermal vents off the Atlantic Coast
b. have sulfur-oxidizing bacteria
c. contain trophosomes
d. live exclusively on dead bacterial cells
e. emit sulfur gases which sustain coral growth
ANSWERS: 1. a 2. b 3. d 4. c 5. d 6. d 7. c 8. b
Source: U.S. Academic Decathlon Practice Test Booklet 2002-2003, "Understanding the Natural World."