(TNS) -- Oil drilling in national parks, taxing junk food and abolishing the penny were just some of the topics tackled by University of Texas of the Permian Basin STEM Academy students during their Great Debate Thursday at the Library Lecture Hall on campus.

Shannon Davidson, who teaches sixth-and seventh-grade reading and project-based learning, said 45 seventh-graders took part in the debate.

“We chose topics that we thought would be interesting to middle school-age students, then we put them in a bucket and they chose them, so it was all random,” Davidson said.

She said the students worked on their speeches for about two weeks for an hour a day. Youngsters started learning about debating about four weeks ago, Davidson said.

“This is part of project-based learning. We took reading skills and writing skills and we combined them into debate, because in seventh grade they have to work on persuasive writing and reading; they have to work on claims of arguments; they have to work on fallacies and so that fit in really nicely with debates. Then they did a lot of research and informational texts with it, as well,” Davidson added.

STEM Academy teacher Dawnna Talley said a winner was chosen for each debate topic. Judges were UTPB professors Chris Stanley and Robert Perry.

For oil drilling, the affirmative side was the victor. Tye Sikes and Makenzie Craig argued that the Environmental Protection Agency has tightened standards for drilling, national parks would get revenue from the oil companies and directional drilling doesn’t take up much space and wouldn’t harm the land.

Sikes said people would get their oilfield jobs back.

Madison Norrid and Josiah Dietz argued that drilling in national parks would be harmful, putting chemicals into the air, possibly hurting animals and causing tourists to get injured on the equipment and it would destroy the scenery. Norrid added that more renewable energy should be used.

Dietz and Norrid also contended that the parks make enough money to support themselves and wouldn’t need funds from oil companies.

Sikes said he agreed about 50 percent with his premise supporting drilling in national parks.

On the topic of whether juveniles should be tried as adults, Breanna McCain and Sarahann Adams won on the negative side. McCain and Adams contended that children age 12 to 17 don’t know right from wrong fully yet.

McCain said the prefrontal cortex of the brain which controls decision making doesn’t fully form until age 21 to 23. She added that the Supreme Court in 2005 overturned the death penalty for juveniles, even in cases of murder.

Abigail Anderson, arguing for juveniles to go through the adult court system, said despite the Supreme Court’s decision, it hasn’t stopped juveniles from committing the same crimes as adults. She said those who go through rehabilitation are more likely to return to jail.

Madison Biggerstaff, who debated for trying juveniles as adults and for closing zoos, said she thought the debate was “really fun.”

“I thought that it would be really exciting, and honestly, I like the competition. I like to argue. This is probably an experience that some kids in middle school won’t have, so I’m just excited to participate in it,” Biggerstaff said.

Putting a tax on junk food, as is done with liquor and cigarettes, was won by the affirmative side -- Ryan Cisneros and Brooklyn Joyner. They argued that two-thirds of Americans are considered overweight or obese.

Even if sales don’t decline, Cisneros said, the economy would get a much-needed cash infusion. He added that taxing liquor and cigarettes caused a decline in sales.

“We the affirmative want to know if you would rather have a happy life, or a bag of chips,” he said.

John Hubert and Jimmy Breeding, arguing against the junk food tax, said taxes hurt the economy and junk food doesn’t cause obesity, lack of exercise does. They added that junk food in moderation doesn’t hurt.

Taking up the argument for abolishing the penny, Acen Schmohr and Ethan Thames said it costs more to make the coin than it’s worth. Since 2000, 21 percent of pennies have been lost. Schmohr said the Department of Defense has stopped using pennies and they weigh more than nickels. They also are a waste of space, he added.

Hayden Bruns and Landon Moersbach argued against eliminating the penny. They contended that it would cause confusion, inaccurate payments and a rounding up tax – where costs would get rounded up.

Thames said eliminating the penny would help increase inflation, which is needed right now. He said the Federal Reserve likes to have inflation at 2 to 3 percent, which is the “sweet spot” where the economy grows best.

“I enjoyed it,” Thames said of the debate. Asked if he wanted to become a lawyer, he said he didn’t, but it was still fun.

“… I was one of the lucky people that did agree with the topic that we got and I supported my side of the argument,” Thames said.

©2015 the Odessa American (Odessa, Texas) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.