In these days of pressure to perform on standardized tests, it may seem to some that learning for the sake of learning or learning for fun are nonexistent concepts in school. The Academic Decathlon program works to change the learning experience for students across the United States, providing students an environment and objective for learning that goes beyond testing and grades.

“It’s not about demonstrating how good a student you already are,” writes Dr. Les Martisko, United States Academic Decathlon (USAD) Board Administrator, in his welcome letter on the USAD website. “It’s about daring to push your limits, to master college-level material and to practice skills, like public speaking, that might be wholly new to you. It’s about the people you’ll meet along the way — the coaches who will mentor you, the competitors who will challenge you, and the teammates who will become your lifelong friends.”

What is Academic Decathlon?

Each year USAD publishes a topic of study nationally, and students in all participating schools learn about the topic within the scope of Art, Economics, Literature, Math, Music, Science and Social Science. This year’s topic is World War II.

Decathletes compete in a wide range of events during an Academic Decathlon competition.

The students give one speech on a topic of choice and one on an impromptu topic, said Elissa Ruckle, Wyoming State Director for the Wyoming Academic Decathlon. They write an essay, which is judged not only on the students’ ability to demonstrate their knowledge on the subject, but also how powerfully they’re able to present an idea. Judges interview competitors and ask thoughtful questions about past experiences and goals for the future, and lastly Decathletes complete challenging exams in the sub-categories of study on the topic of the year.

In some schools Academic Decathlon is a class the students receive credit for. Other schools offer Academic Decathlon as an after school extracurricular activity, said Ruckle.

Students from the Wyoming schools enrolled in the program attend one annual State Convention held right here in Casper, where they compete for the title of State Champion, she said. The Wyoming State Champion then travels to compete in the National Competition, which has been held in Hawaii and Alaska in recent years.

In a questionnaire provided by Wyoming Academic Decathlon, students were given the opportunity to to give their feedback on the program anonymously. Their responses provide first-hand insight into Academic Decathlon and how it benefits the participants.

“The major benefit of participating in AcaDeca for me was learning about a topic I would otherwise never have learned about.”

“Academic Decathlon really helped me with my fear of impromptu speaking and interviews.”

“AcaDeca is like football for your brain.”

“AcaDeca teaches students valuable people, study, critical thinking, and character skills. It teaches them that working hard can be big fun and have huge rewards…and that they can take on anything if they try.”

“The topics we study provide a wealth of information beyond what we obtain in the normal classroom. We build life skills – team work, public speaking and presenting well. Bonus! We can earn money for college!”

Even as a first-time Speech and Interview judge who, by her own admission, “had no idea what Academic Decathlon was or how it worked,” Ruckle immediately understood its importance.

“As a Judge, I got to see first hand how the program builds confidence and camaraderie,” she said. “The kids build confidence as they experience the unfamiliar and expand their world-view through the content they study. Decathletes work hard, work together to support and encourage each other as a team, and experience tremendous pride when they succeed. WyAD is truly a unique and exceptional program for our high school students.”

It was a program that Ruckle felt strongly about and was inspired to become more involved with. From judge to State Director, her involvement has given her the opportunity to see kids through several years of their participation in Academic Decathlon.

“As State Director, I had the opportunity to travel to Anchorage Alaska last year with our State Champions from Star Lane Center,” said Rucle. “The USAD National Competition is the culmination of the USAD season; State Champion Teams from the participating forty-one US States, Canada, United Kingdom and China compete in the same 10 events. I cannot express the depth of pride and wonder I felt witnessing how well our Wyoming high school students stand up against teams Nationally. Our students represent our State with such tremendous pride – they work hard individually and work together to succeed as a team. They get to travel and experience other cities, states, communities and build friendship not just locally but globally. An amazing opportunity and experience for our kiddos.”

2016 Academic Decathlete Essay Gold Medal Honors Division

West Winds Magazine is pleased to offer a glimpse into the award winning work our Wyoming Academic Decathlon students produce during their competitions.

Photo provided by Wyoming Academic Decathlon

Photo provided by Wyoming Academic Decathlon

Darbi Schlenker, (far left), Senior at the time, Meeteetse High School.  She is currently attending the University of Wyoming.

New Horizons: Examining the Ecologies of the Five Soil Profiles

Although the microbes, bacteria, and insects living within soil profiles have no clue of their existence, these scientific grouping measures do a lot to advance, categorize, and further the understanding of soil life. The youngest and most easily accessed soil horizon, horizon ‘O’, can be considered the most biologically active of all of the layers. Even though ‘O’ seems like a strange letter to begin the scientific classification of soil horizons with, the reasoning actually makes a bit of sense. Because this layer is comprised mainly of organic matter, the ‘O’ highlights the main component of the horizon. This layer teams with life, and ecological interactions of the biotic and abiotic nature. Plant life, small animals, and numerous insects all inhabit this very top soil horizon.

The next layer, soil horizon ‘A’, bears a name that not only reflects its less eventful nature, but is also more in line with typical classification namings. This soil horizon is casually known as topsoil, and although it has a considerable amount of biological involvement, geological involvement plays a large roll as well. Generally, this soil is the most likely to have a nitrogen rich combination of sand, clay, and loam to provide a healthy basis for plant life. Due to the near-the-surface nature of soil horizon ‘A’, it is also likely to be loosely packed. This feature facilitates plant growth. Soil horizon ‘B’ on the other hand, delves into an area of the ground filled with fewer organic and biological interactions. The soil is more tightly packed, and in areas where the soil has not ben disturbed in a long time, the horizon will likely be filled with clay. This results in a wet yet non- nutrient rich environment. Soil horizon ‘C’ continues this trend. The soil is even   more densely packed, and few root systems, animals, or insects inhabit this soil horizon. The lack of sunlight forces the microbial life to survive off of chemosynthesis instead of photosynthesis, and the absence of biological processes serves to highlight the geological and chemical processes.

The final soil horizon, horizon ‘R’, not only reverts back to the phonetic system, but is also quite devoid of life and biological systems as a whole. Horizon ‘R’ is comprised mainly of rock. This leaves little room for plant life, and because plant life can be considered the biological basis for animals, insects, and bacteria, the horizon’s ecology is quite dull. Almost no root systems penetrate that far into the ground, and instead of seeing biological interactions, interactions with the water table are far more likely. Soil horizon ‘R’ nicely rounds out the five soil profiles and distinct ecologies within each.

Learn more about Wyoming Academic Decathlon.

Kristin Schaeffer