Students at Denison High School (DHS) have been busy all year getting ready for competition in the 2020 Iowa Academic Decathlon, which kicks off next Monday.
“We study every day after school the whole year round,” said Coach Aaron Ratliff.
Ratliff teaches math at DHS.
The theme for this year’s competition is “In sickness and in health.”
Academic decathlon is a knowledge competition that tests students on college-level materials across 10 different subjects: mathematics, economics, art, music, language and literature, social science, science, speech, interview, and essay.
Cancer is the topic for the science subjects.
The art subject deals with art that expresses death or mental illness, he said.
Healthcare since ancient times is the focus of the history subject.
The literature curriculum includes one long work of literature and several shorter works.
“Language focuses on one novel each year and this year it’s ‘Frankenstein’ and a lot of shorter poems, as well,” he said.
Mathematics doesn’t have a lot to do with that topic, Ratliff noted.
“They alternate between calculus and trigonometry,” he said.
“This year the highest subject they look at is trigo-nometry, but they also look at geometry and algebra.”
Economics is usually about 80 percent the same each year with about 20 percent new information.
“This year it focuses on the economics behind healthcare here in the United States,” Ratliff said.
Mathematics, economics, art, music, language and literature, social science, and science are judged through multiple choice tests.
Speech, interview, and essay are judged from student performances.
“They want an all-around student,” Ratliff said.
The students aren’t the only ones taking the time to learn about the topics.
Ratliff said he found the information about cancer treatment to be of interest.
“I really enjoy getting to study a new science topic each year,” he said. “This year I’ve learned a lot about cancer.”
Teams are allowed to have up to nine student members, but this year the DHS team has six.
“This year, for regionals, I’m only taking six, which is the smallest number I’ve ever taken,” Ratliff said.
He believes the smaller number may be a strength rather than a weakness.
“I’ve always kind of wanted to have six that can study strong and focus strong,” he said. “I think we’ll do well.”
He knew he might have trouble recruiting this year because he had just two returning members from last year’s team.
“Fortunately they were able to convince a lot of their friends to come out,” Ratliff said.
Getting the whole team together to practice is the biggest challenge throughout the year.
“If they have another activity then we have to share them for a while,” he said. “Probably the hardest thing is getting the whole team to come to practice every day.”
The team has to compete with cross country in the fall and speech students also have other commitments during the year.
Ratliff is supported by assistant coach Mark Aurand, who helps the students with art and music and history.
DHS Language Arts teacher Dana Schroeder helps teach the language and literature section.
The students on the team are Joshua Ahrenholtz, Elizabeth Christensen, Jessie Dominguez, Jared Haberberger, Coen Avila and Angle Medrano.
Two more students may yet join, but not until after the first competition next Monday at Johnston High School in Johnston.
The Iowa Academic Decathlon organization provides the study materials that the students have been poring over.
“It’s about 150 pages of college-level text on each of the subjects and we just study that like crazy each year. It’s pretty hard to get through,” Ratliff said. “After we read through the material we quiz each other on it and there are some sample tests that we use.”
The team is doing sample test after sample test right now.
The students are split among three categories, based on grade point average (GPA).
Students with GPAs between 3.75 and 4.0 are in the “honors” category, students with GPAs between 3.0 and 3.74 are in the “scholastics” category and students with GPAs under 3.0 are in the “varsity” category.
Each group competes only with other students in the same category.
“For the team score you take the two highest scores in each of the categories – honors, varsity, scholastic – add that together for the team total,” Ratliff said. “Hopefully we’ll have enough points to qualify to move on to the state competition in March.”
Attracting students for the varsity category is one of the challenges of building an academic decathlon team, he said.
“It’s tough to pull in students whose grade point average is below 3.0 and get them to study more - when they might not like studying in the first place,” Ratliff said, “but some years I can get students who have that lower grade point average and it’s not because they’re not bright, it’s because they don’t love working in school.”
He’s fortunate to have some very bright varsity students on this year’s team, he said.
“Denison has a rich history with academic decathlon,” he said. “We’ve made the state tournament every single year for going on 30 years, now. It would be nice to break through again and start competing with the big schools like we use to.”
He said he expects the team to do well this year, in part because of the strong varsity students.
“I think they are going to compete very well,” Ratliff said. “I think that’s the secret to us doing well this year.”