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West Jordan Journal

Copper Hills decathlete's research into public health becomes very relevant

Apr 13, 2020 03:00PM ● By Jet Burnham

The Copper Hills Academic Decathlon team. (Photo courtesy Thom Manning)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Alex Hess, senior at Copper Hills High School agrees with the decision to close schools, even though it means he will miss out on prom and the school band tour to San Diego that were cancelled.

“I think that Utah has taken effective steps to prevent the spread,” he said on March 16. He should know. As a member of CHHS’s academic decathlon team, Hess has researched in depth about the spread of infectious diseases.

Each year, the team learns everything they can about an assigned theme. This year was “In sickness and health, an exploration of how we deal with mental illness and physical illness.” His sophomore year, it was Africa.

While learning about the Ebola outbreak in Africa, Hess said he understood that diseases could spread in the U.S. but it wasn’t as likely because of advanced medical systems that would provide a level of protection. Now that it has become a reality in his community, he said he is still “pretty chill.”

“I'm not necessarily as scared as other people are for this disease.” he said. Because of his knowledge, he knows the importance of hand washing, social distancing and remaining calm.

The purpose of the academic decathlon national program is to inspire academic excellence through competition. Teams study a curriculum with a specific theme to prepare for a speech, interview, essay and seven multiple choice tests in math, music, language & literature, social science, economics, science, art.

The CHHS team placed third in their division against 15 teams at the state competition. Their nine member team earned 19 individual medals. Senior Grace Bramlage medaled in 8 of 10 events and took second overall with an impressive 7700 out of 10,000 points possible. (The first-place student scored 7800.) Team adviser Thom Manning said the tests are extremely difficult.

“A 50% on these tests, depending on how the day's going, that might be medaling turf,” he said.

“This year we're doing distinctly better than we have in the last couple of years,” Manning said. While previously an afterschool club, this year team members learned the curriculum in a class.

Hess said that doubled the learning time.

“You read [the manuals] on your own and then in the class you have time to bounce your ideas, what you've learned, to clarify misinformation with your classmates,” he said. “It's a really wonderful experience,” he said. “You don't get the experience in other classrooms and other academic settings—it’s a very unique experience.”

Hess said many of his teammates are challenged and motivated to come to school for the first time because of the unique opportunity the class provides.

Hess joined the team his sophomore year.

“I've always had a fascination with learning,” he said. “This is literally a club for people who like to learn.”

Nine team members and three alternates include students of varying grade point averages. The diversity balances strengths and weaknesses of individuals.

“It becomes a cool cultural experience for the students because the 4.0 students sometimes don't have friends or interactions with students who sometimes get F's and sometimes get D’s,” Manning said. “Those that have the GPAs that are 2-point-whatever don't necessarily hang out with 4.0 kids. But when they're in the class, there's a melding of the ways.”

Manning said high performing kids are pushed and challenged to push themselves more and lower-performing kids find that with time and effort, they can perform surprisingly well on tests.

Manning participated in Academic Decathlon as a high school student and jumped at the chance to coach CHHS’s team when it became available seven years ago.

“I feel like it gives me a chance to make a real difference to the students to watch them grow over the year, to help them to stretch in different ways,” he said.

The number of teams at the two scrimmages, region, state and national competitions is declining. Manning said there's not enough community recognition or awareness of the program.

“A lot of the groups kind of live and die based off of a passionate coach or a passionate administrator who makes sure it happens,” Manning said. “If that one person disappears, then it dissolves.”

The teams are small to begin with anyway so transportation to competitions and field trips for enrichment learning are difficult to secure.

“When your team is about nine students, trying to order a bus to take you to places is not very economical,” Manning said. “So we've usually been able to order a bus in cooperation with three to five other teams.” 

During the closure of the school due to the virus, Manning challenged students to find something interesting to learn and share it with the group. He hopes to have the opportunity to go back and explore interesting tangents of learning the class had to abandon in favor of preparing for competition earlier in the year.

“I now have students who trust me and believe in each other and like to learn stuff and so we could go all sorts of places,” Manning said. “I'm looking forward to it academically myself. We might be able to go down rabbit holes of education that are heretofore unexplored.”