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Academic Challenge Contests at SHSU

Through a network of cooperation between public and private high schools, corporate sponsors, the Texas Education Agency, and the volunteer efforts of Sam Houston faculty and students, Sam Houston State University plays a key role in encouraging the development and the growth of Academic Challenge competition across Texas.

"Those of us who are familiar with the publicity and the prominence accorded to high school athletic competition are happy to see progress toward recognizing a class of competition that is so much more closely tied with what we all want our schools to be about--students' learning," said Frank Fair, coordinator of the SHSU Academic Challenge Program.

In the spring of 1991 SHSU hosted its first Academic Challenge contest. The point of the contest was to publicize SHSU's new Honors Program. SHSU invited a number of schools from the Greater Houston area, and 15 decided to come.

The model for the event was the Texaco Star Academic Challenge that had been taking place in Houston for several years. SHSU faculty members volunteered to serve as contest officials, and SHSU Honors Program students were greeters, scorekeepers, etc.

The individual matches in the contest involved two teams of high school students competing in a "College Bowl" format in which teams score points by answering questions posed by a moderator. In a fashion similar to "Jeopardy," an electronic buzzer system is used to record which student is first to be ready to answer.

The result is an exciting, competitive atmosphere in which points go to the team that "beats the other team to the draw."

"The students and their coaches enjoyed themselves, as did our faculty and student volunteers," said Fair. "So much so that we decided to put on another local contest for schools in the Greater Houston area in the following year. The 1992 contest drew a greater number of schools, and once again both we at SHSU and the contestants enjoyed the competition."

At this point the program's horizons expanded.

"We had learned of the Panasonic National Academic Challenge contest organized by the Florida Department of Education in conjunction with Disneyworld and Panasonic," said Fair.

"The organizers of the Florida tournament invite just one team from each state to participate as representatives of that state, so we contacted them and agreed to host a Texas Academic Challenge State Championship in order to select the team to represent Texas."

Accordingly, in April of 1993 SHSU hosted the first Texas Academic Challenge State Championship. The Texas Education Agency officially endorsed the effort, and ;that support has continued.

The Championship itself was a two-day event. Invitations were issued to a number of teams that had done well in local contests around the state. Ultimately, the goal was to encourage the growth of local academic challenge competitions.

The 1993 State Championship attracted 18 high schools. Two corporate sponsors, Apple Computer and Coca Cola, began and continue as sponsors. They helped by donating, respectively, a Macintosh computer as a prize for the winning school and soft drinks for breaks during the two-day tournament.

About 30 SHSU faculty and 30 students volunteered their time to make the tournament possible. The winning team was from Temple High School, and subsequently they made it to the semifinal round of the Panasonic Academic Challenge at Disneyworld.

Having demonstrated that SHSU could successfully host a State Championship, the university took steps to institutionalize its sponsorship of the Academic Challenge competition. Frank Fair, a professor of philosophy, was given the assignment of coordinating the program and was given one-quarter released time.

Every April since 1993 Sam Houston State has hosted Texas Academic Challenge State Championships. Teams have participated from the Greater Houston area, Dallas-Fort Worth, Beaumont, the Permian Basin, Abilene, Denison, El Paso, Palestine, Lubbock, the Rio Grande valley, and other areas across ;the state.

Since that first year, teams from St. John's School of Houston, Bellaire High School, and Cistercian Prep have won the right to represent Texas at the Panasonic Academic Challenge. In fact, in 1998 the team from St. John's were again winners of the State Championship.

Most notably, however, in 1997 Klein High School won the Texas Academic Challenge State Championship and went on to win the Panasonic National Academic Challenge Championship.

"Their success demonstrated in no uncertain terms the high caliber of competition in the Sam Houston State University Texas Academic Challenge State Championship," said Fair.

In addition to the State Championship each spring, during each fall semester SHSU sponsors the Fall SHSU Invitational Academic Challenge Contest for schools in the Greater Houston area.

"We would not be able to do this without the strong support of the members of the Sam Houston State University community, and that support reaches from the top academic officers such as Dr. Bob Marks, our president, and Dr. Ken Craycraft, dean of the College of Education and Applied Science, down to a large number of faculty and student volunteers who help with the contests each year."

While the State Championship is dramatic, the real point is to encourage the growth of Academic Challenge competition in local areas throughout the state, said Fair.

"We want as many students to be involved as possible, and that will only happen if there is a growth of local league play between neighboring schools," he said. "This has begun to happen in a number of areas, and also in a number of places, such as Temple High School, intraschool competition is an exciting event on the school calendar."

In some areas, "junior varsity" and middle school programs have also been started. As a result, the focus is not exclusively on the several students who form the school's competition team, and a greater number of students are involved.

"At SHSU, we have seen this activity grow, and we are glad to be able to play a role in aiding that process," he said.

For more on the SHSU Academic Challenge contests, contact:
Frank Fair, Ph. D.
Coordinator, SHSU Academic Challenge Program
Department of Psychology and Philosophy
Sam Houston State University
Huntsville, TX 77341
Phone: 409-294-1174; Fax: 409-294-3798

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Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
Nov. 10, 1998
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