Nearly 100 Students from 10 Schools Defy the Elements to Participate in the Now-Legendary “2019 Polar Vortex Burst Pipe High School Ethics Bowl”

Ann Arbor, MI – It was late afternoon on Friday, February 1, when A2Ethics President Jeanine DeLay received a startling email from the University of Michigan Department of Philosophy. The 6th annual Michigan High School Ethics Bowl was scheduled to begin the following morning in Palmer Commons on U-M’s central campus. The Bowl is a thriving partnership between A2Ethics, a local public philosophy initiative, and the U-M Dept. of Philosophy Outreach program. After months of effort by A2Ethics volunteers and the U-M’s corps of philosophy coaches, who worked with high school faculty advisors and nearly 100 students, the event was expected to draw 16 teams from 10 schools across the lower peninsula.

There was just one problem. One very, very big problem.  

During the prior week, the entire state had been buffeted by ferocious winter weather. Heavy snowfall and treacherous ice had closed schools for days. Making matters worse, a rare polar vortex was hovering over the region, producing record-breaking, life-threatening wind chills as low as -45º and wreaking havoc on infrastructure—and event planning.

DeLay had spent hours that morning at her computer, checking to see which of the teams would be able to make the trip to Ann Arbor for the weekend Bowl event. As it turned out, all 10 schools were prepping buses for the journey. Things were looking good, and a small group of volunteers was heading to Palmer Commons at 4 p.m. to set up for the event.

Then came the late-afternoon email. And the news couldn’t have been worse.

The water pipes at Palmer Commons had burst. The building was unusable. Suddenly, at the sixteenth hour, the entire Ethics Bowl was in jeopardy. A new location had to be found. But where? And how? An ideal “What Would a Philosopher Do?” moment presented itself.

Bowl supporters swung into action.

U-M Philosophy Department Undergraduate Coordinator Jude Beck initiated an immediate search for empty rooms. Mason Hall was available. Together, Angela Sun and Kevin Craven, the U-M Philosophy Outreach coordinators, and A2Ethics board members, Jane Miller and Elton Li, began the arduous task of rearranging rooms to fit the Bowl requirements. New maps were designed. A2Ethics organizers sent out a mini-polar vortex storm of urgent change-of-venue emails and phone calls.

At 10 a.m. the next morning, a bevy of unflappable A2Ethics volunteers greeted the equally relaxed students, coaches and judges—all cheerfully determined to assure that the 6th Michigan High School Ethics Bowl would indeed happen.

Despite the weather and Palmer plumbing, the competition went forward. As planned, 10 high schools were represented, and many of them fielded more than one team:

  • Ann Arbor Greenhills (The Blues, The Greens )
  • Ann Arbor Huron High (The Slothologists, Thoreau Understanding )
  • Ann Arbor Pioneer High (The Purple Gang, The Purple Pioneering Philosophers)
  • Meadow Montessori of Monroe (Immoral Majority)
  • Oak Park High School (In Theory, Invictus)
  • Portage Northern (Hemlock & Drop It)
  • Saginaw Arts & Sciences Academy (Descartiac Arrest, Locke & Load)
  • Saline High School (Kant Even See them Coming, Kant Touch This )
  • Washtenaw International High School (Socraties of State)
  • Wayne Memorial High School (The Herd from Wayne)

Two high school principals—Nhu Do from Washtenaw International High School and David Raft from Saline High School—also found their way to the new venue and attended the opening rounds of the Polar Vortex Bowl to show their support.

On the first day, all 16 teams—nearly 100 students in all—participated in the four opening rounds. The eight winning teams—from Greenhills, Huron, Pioneer, Saginaw Arts & Sciences Academy, and Saline—then returned to Ann Arbor the following day, February 3, to decide the 2019 state champion.

Following the final round, the Purple Pioneering Philosophers from Pioneer High emerged as the winner, with the runner-up award going to the Greenhills Greens. In addition to receiving The Hemlock Cup, the Pioneer team will represent the state of Michigan at the National High School Ethics Bowl from April 5-7 at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. In years past, Michigan teams have won the event’s second highest prize, The Spirit of the Bowl Award (Wayne Memorial in 2018), and have placed in both quarterfinal and semifinal matches.

The Bowl itself is a showcase for high school student teams to present and defend their original analyses and insights about a range of ethics case studies written by local practitioners in different professions. Bowl organizers point out that the event is not designed to pit one idea against another, but rather to encourage students to consider differing viewpoints and flex their analytical skills on relevant issues. Among the issues examined in this year’s Bowl case studies: whether social media sites are responsible for preventing their users from enabling one another to engage in self-destructive behaviors; the moral status of tattoos in stating a patient’s desires or intentions in the emergency room; and the circumstances in which it is morally permissible for journalists to rely on anonymous sources.   

During the 2019 Bowl, the teams were accompanied by their faculty coaches—teachers from each of the schools who volunteer for this extracurricular program, and who create and recruit their school teams. Critical teaching is provided by philosopher coaches from the U-M Department of Philosophy Outreach Program. A2Ethics organizes and produces the Bowl weekend.

Equally essential are the 30+ judges of the competition. “Many of the Bowl judges are philosophy and humanities faculty members,” DeLay explains. “This year, judges hailed from 12 universities, colleges and community colleges across southern Michigan including, for the first time, U-M Flint. In addition, we hosted judges from prestigious institutes such as U-M’s Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine and Western Michigan University’s Center for the Study of Ethics in Society.”

Despite setbacks and a few unavoidable glitches, the event went smoothly, thanks in large part to the 45 community volunteers who served as greeters, coordinators, moderators, and scorekeepers. For many of those volunteers, the Bowl is an annual event.

Ann Arbor Huron High philosophy teacher and faculty coach Katie Jones captured the spirit of day when she commented: “If we had the means to capture the mental energy being employed during the Bowl, we could likely power a small town. The mixture of anxiety and excitement in the room—and the tension between each team’s competitive edge and their humble sense of humor—is just about perfect.”

DeLay notes that the 2019 Bowl offered some powerful lessons. “For all of us,” she says, “this year’s High School Ethics Bowl experience demonstrated how much can be accomplished when people who are on a mission come together to provide an important educational opportunity for young people. The outpouring of support and the overall teamwork for this collective endeavor were phenomenal. The Bowl is an all-volunteer effort on the part of University of Michigan graduate students and faculty, philosophy and humanities professionals from across the state, high school teachers, local case writers from various occupations, and very generous community members. Thanks to them, what could have been a misadventure turned into a grand adventure. The fact that the 2019 Bowl brought together students from six counties across lower Michigan shows, in just six years, we’ve been able to make a major impact in the state. Even in bad weather.”