Debate students host their own online summer camp

Courtesy image: Brookings high schoolers Aditya Tummala and Prasoon Kharel organized a weeklong virtual debate camp via Zoom for the incoming freshmen who have signed up for debate class. Their goals were to introduce the new students into the field of debate so they would have some experience and comfortability starting off the new year. To end the camp, they held a debate over the topic of whether the “federal government should impose price controls on the pharmaceutical industry.”

BROOKINGS – While COVID-19 put many plans on hold this summer, some local students saw an opportunity to continue activities that can be easily done online.

Brookings High School senior Prasoon Kharel and junior Aditya Tummala joined together to create a weeklong debate camp this past July for incoming BHS freshmen. It was held entirely over Zoom, the video-conferencing platform. The group of 15 students worked on debate fundamentals and skills on spotting misleading information.

“Essentially, during the last week of July, Prasoon and I created a weeklong debate and public speaking camp with a fun debate tournament at the end. So essentially, we did this entire project with three major goals. The first major goal was that so many teens that are bored right now sitting at home, we just wanted to engage them in a positive manner and try to get some community engagement with that,” Tummala said.

“Secondly, we believe that a really major challenge that we face in our new evolving world is specifically how to filter out misleading and exaggerating information …. Unfortunately, this is not – at least not very well distributed out – so, we thought it would be highly beneficial to teach how to accurately interpret the really diverse field of news, opinion and information that we face today. And the third major goal is obviously the debate,” Tummala said.

The organizers sought to increase interest and participation in debate.

“Essentially, what we saw with our debate team was a rapid decrease in the numbers of our own debate team, and we thought that was alarming and we wanted to do something about it to increase an interest in debate. We thought that creating an online debate camp would also help interest in debate. We also saw in our own debate community, or circuit – the South Dakota Circuit – we saw whole entire debate events, such as policy debate, fizzle out because of a lack of numbers, which was really alarming,” Kharel said.

“We did a hybrid type of thing at the camp. Aditya and I decided to set up a camp that focuses on foundational skills rather than skills specific to one event in debate. So for the debate tournament, we formatted it in a way that combined Lincoln-Douglas and Public Forum debate without the complexities of both types of events,” Kharel added.

The camp was for incoming freshman who had registered for debate class, to help them get an edge and some experience in approaching the podium to speak and debate on their own in a real competitive setting.

It was a shorter format, where the main focus was on the structure of debate: timing, retorts, research and argument forms. They made the debate a one-on-one format for the ease of trial and error debate runs, helping them “hone their skills on their own,” Kharel said.

They also worked on understanding misleading data. The team decided that it would be vital to introduce this concept to the rest of their debate cohorts, so that they can keep a keen eye out for potentially misleading or incorrect information.

Skewed information can be exaggerated to prove one side over the other. It can be misleading or simply untrue and sometimes is affected by the bias of whomever is presenting the information, the student organizers said. 

“Even if things are sourced, you always need to look at the original source,” Tummala said. 

All kinds of media outlets can be afflicted by these tendencies, Tummala said, and it infects all kinds of scientific and scholarly articles and journals, newspapers, television broadcasts, and all varieties of social media posts. Research is often impacted by people “cherry-picking,” or the surveys used are not based on a randomly selected group of people, which creates a bias.

Accessibility and expanding students’ skills was important.

“We thought it was really important to do in our community specifically because bigger cities with expensive debate camps, they’re highly competitive usually, very inaccessible to low-income students – they’re thousands of dollars per week – it’s very expensive,” Tummala said. 

“They’re hyper-focused on winning debate tournaments…they only look at debate and not much else. But with this camp, Prasoon and I made sure we informed the critical thinking skills as well as the major focuses on the real-world application of these debate and research skills because for a majority of these students, they will be using these skills in their life as they progress,” he added.

The topic of their debate was whether the “United States should impose price controls on the pharmaceutical industry.”

The final two competitors for the camp were Emily Hue and Jensi Jensen, with Jensen coming out on top.

Contact Matthew Rhodes at [email protected]

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