Late into the evening in Downey High School Room 202B, teenagers pass secret, folded notes between the desks and giggle over their contents.
But just when you think nobody's paying attention, a buzzer goes off and someone blurts out the answer to a question about the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
The students make up Downey High's Science Bowl team. They call themselves a group of "three nerdy guys and one nerdy girl" who brings up her team's "pretty quota."
The four students begin competition today in Washington, D.C. against 66 other schools from across the country for the National Science Bowl title, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.
It's the first trip to the nationals for Downey High School since 2000, an all-expense-paid trip that includes nighttime visits to the monuments and a congressional reception.
The team qualified for the national competition by winning the Central Valley regional in February, ending Tokay High of Lodi's streak of two-straight victories, preceded by Johansen High's five-year run.
The students are typical teenagers when it comes to what they're most looking forward to about the six-day trip.
"Hanging out, screwing around and not being in school," joked senior Dani Hicks, who will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall.
The students practice all year and develop specialties in different areas of science. Hicks is the team's biology and earth science star. Teammate Kevin Sutherland, a junior, is an astronomy and chemistry buff.
Calvin Goreal, Downey's No. 1 singles player in tennis, loves all things math and physics and gave up his chance at a Modesto Metro Conference championship to compete in Washington. His goal: to become chairman of the Federal Reserve.
The team won't have its computer science and biology expert, Alex Bonte, a UC Berkeley-bound senior whose lead role in the school's production of Les Misérables took priority.
Junior Randall Robinson, a chemistry and physics buff, took Bonte's place.
In practice, the group says it feels like a dysfunctional family. They have arguments over who should buzz in an answer and give each other grief for a flubbed response. But competition brings out intense concentration and teamwork.
"Most of us are stubborn and immature, but at the same time, we go so well together," Sutherland said.
The national competition will begin slashing the field with round-robin matches, and a double-elimination tournament will decide the top six teams, who will fight it out for the title Monday.
The Downey teammates know they'll have to channel their collective "nerdiness" to compete among the dozens of more experienced teams who converge on Washington each year, including those representing science magnet schools.
Just don't you dare call them geeks. This Downey team doesn't believe in pocket protectors.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.