For more than 30 years, ‘Categories’ has given Shawnee Mission students platform to flex mental muscles

The Shawnee Mission West Vikings and Blue Valley Tigers faced off in a match Feb. 28 on the academic quiz show, ‘Categories.’

For more than three decades, students from the Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley school districts have gone head to head on “Categories,” an academic quiz show broadcast on local cable TV.

The show gives student participants the opportunity to flex their mental muscles. They have to think on their feet; if they answer a question incorrectly, they must shake it off and prepare for the next one coming 10 seconds later.

The Shawnee Mission School District produces the show at the Indian Hills Technology Center (which recently housed Brookwood Elementary while a new building was being constructed).

Owen Denniston, right, leads the communications staff who produces ‘Categories’ each week.

“I really enjoy just watching the kids develop the answers to what I would consider fairly difficult questions,” said Owen Denniston, television production coordinator for the Shawnee Mission communications department. Denniston leads production of the show each week. “I’m always amazed at the breadth of their knowledge. It’s just really astounding to see what they can answer.”

Denniston has worked for the district and assisted with the quiz show since 1981.

How the show works

The SM West Vikings are, top row from left, Sean Perkins and Jonathan Nelson, and bottom row from left, Dane Worthington, Ben Phillips and Eric Hancock.

Here’s how it works: Each of the 10 high schools in the two school districts has its own team. Two teams of five students each will face off in a match, which is recorded and later broadcast on cable TV. The two teams vie for the most points by answering the most questions quickly and correctly.

The quiz show is called “Categories” because each question is presented in a category. A match involves two rounds of 12 minutes each; in that time, teams answer dozens of random questions. Each round features a broad range of questions, from geography and current events to mathematics, science, art, music, language and pop culture.

Each season has 24 matches and runs from the end of October until spring break. The top four teams from the regular season face each other in the playoffs and vie for the championship. The show airs three days a week on three area cable news channels and is also posted on YouTube.

Dane Worthington, a junior at Shawnee Mission West, is now captain of his team after three years of competing on the show. He said he sticks with it because his team has a winning streak.

“I just like it; it’s fun,” Worthington said, adding that he’s interested in and good at trivia. “I don’t play any sports or anything, so this gives me an opportunity to compete and represent my school in something. And we’ve made it to the playoffs every single year, so I gotta keep the streak alive.”

The large room where the show is filmed is set up like a typical studio; students on set face half a dozen cameras, which film each match and capture each student as he or she responds. In the back of the room, production staff oversee the operation in a dark studio.

Communications and information technology staff from the Shawnee Mission School District, and a few student interns from the two school districts, keep the show going backstage. Meanwhile, Principal John Bartel of Crestview Elementary plays host for the quiz show, and Principal Paul Colwell of Horizons High School judges the competition.

“The teams have a lot of camaraderie,” Denniston said. “It pulls together students; it’s a nice way to demonstrate their academic prowess in the school districts.”