Fun, friends, formulae, and facing international competition

September 2018
EDUCATION

“Every aspect of the world today even politics and international relations, is affected by chemistry.” (Linus Pauling)

“We should show everyone all the aspects of IChO… beyond the practical and theoretical problems. When most people think of the International Olympiads, they think only of the academic examinations. While the academic competition itself was intense and exhilarating, making new friends from all over the world was just as rewarding and integral to the overall IChO experience!”

(Run Lin Wang, Canadian IChO 2018 Silver Medalist)

The International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO) is an annual competition celebrating the world’s most talented high school chemistry students. The top four Chemistry students from participating countries compete in intense theoretical and practical exams and develop a greater global understanding by interacting with like-minded, talented chemistry students from around the world.

This year, the 50th Anniversary of IChO, the meticulously organized Olympiad took place in Bratislava, Slovakia and Prague, Czech Republic., marking the first time IChO was hosted by two countries collaborating together. Back in 1968, science leaders in the former Czechoslovakia wanted to build capacity and a love of chemistry among the next generation of high school students. With a strong vision of promoting friendships and co-operation among young people interested in chemistry, Czechoslovakia reached beyond its borders and invited other countries to participate. The first IChO only had three participating countries: Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Since then the political landscape of the world has changed tremendously and the prestige and the number of participants in IChO have grown. In 1993, the former Czechoslovakia separated into two countries: Czech Republic and Slovakia. Despite the differences between the two nations, the beauty of their collaboration was evident on this anniversary, where the world came back to where it all began and 296 students from 76 countries competed for top honours in chemical problem solving.

Students involved in the competition enthusiastically confirm that IChO is living up to its mandate of promoting international friendships, academic excellence and scientific collaboration. Judy Xia, a grade 12 student from Toronto and member of the Canadian 2018 IChO team, said that her favourite parts of IChO were the preparation with her teammates during the Canadian training camps at the University of Toronto, the challenge of tackling difficult problem solving in chemistry, and interacting with people from all over the world.

“Discussing things with team members allowed me to think of problem solving in a more flexible, dynamic way,” she says, explaining that once the competition starts, students have to hand over all communication devices. “Once the devices were confiscated. I met lots of new friends and the subjects of conversations ranged from chemistry, to daily hobbies and differences in cultural practices.”

Xia will be pursuing a degree in chemical engineering at the University of Toronto next year, her passion for the pursuit of excellence and her work ethic speak volumes about what she can contribute to her field of study.

In a world where we wonder how to prepare young people for jobs that do not yet exist, IChO provides an experience with a relevance that stands the test of time. The Future of Jobs Report from the World Economic Forum cites complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision making, time management and cognitive flexibility as being among most important skills people will need in the future. According to this report, the capacity to ‘learn new skills quickly’ will be paramount in the years to come. From the preparation for the Canadian Chemistry Olympiad (CCO) exam in April, which hundreds of Canadian students complete, to the Provincial training camp for the top 20 students in Ontario, to the tasks IChO participants have to complete in the host country, we coach and assess students in the necessary skills for the future.

“The exams themselves were very fun and they were incredibly challenging,” says Sean Wang, a grade 11 student from Vancouver and IChO 2018 Bronze medalist. “Though I didn’t completely finish all the questions, I really enjoyed the problems. I gave everything my best shot and I got to use my problem solving skills. I was a bit surprised to see some of the types of questions on the exam but realized that I didn’t need to know anything beyond what I had studied…to solve this exam. I needed to reason through the problems to get to the answer. I really like problems that don’t require a lot of [obscure] conceptual knowledge and can be solved with critical thinking. The IChO problems were very well made.”

Wang is a dedicated student and his interests span a wide range of areas, including chemistry, physics, math and computer science. He is an example of the multidisciplinary young talent Canada can benefit from. The IChO problems he and all of the IChO competitors had to tackle can be found at https://50icho.eu/problems/icho-2018-problems/

For Aaron Dou, 2018 IChO bronze medalist and grade 12 student from Toronto, the “soft” skills you need for IChO include “the ability to motivate yourself, organization, the ability to work with other people — if you can create study groups with others — it makes persevering a lot more manageable.” He was selected as one of the top 20 students in Ontario in 2017 but did not make the top four last year. He continued to prepare and this year was selected as 2018 team captain. Dou demonstrates the qualities of humility, perseverance and a real joy in studying chemistry.

“During the practical part of the training — labs are always really fun to do — you are never sure whether they are going to work ,” he says. “If they don’t, you are kind of sad but when they do, you get a lot more confident.”

He adds that all interested and hard-working chemistry students across Canada are capable of learning the practical skills needed for the competition.

“It helps if you are not clumsy like me, but if I can start as a laboratory disaster and avoid being an international disappointment, then anyone can do it,” he argues. “You just need to be confident in yourself.”

Dou will be studying Life Sciences at the University of Toronto next year and he hopes to help train some of next year’s IChO participants.

Students who compete at IChO are inspired by learning, challenges and chemistry. According to Run Lin Wang, a grade 11 student from Calgary and IChO Silver medalist, “the academic rigour required to prepare for [the competition] and the opportunity to compete on a truly global stage with the best from all around the world…coupled with my interest and knowledge in chemistry, motivated me to compete at IChO”.

Wang is outgoing, talented and easy to talk to. His knowledge of chemistry would rival that of many second year university students. When asked what his favourite memory of IChO was, he answered “the "Mascot NATO" that we formed. Mascot stealing is an IChO tradition; if you steal other teams' mascots, you gain glory and pride for your country. This year, our mascot was stolen many times, and coincidentally always by the same country (Finland). Finland also stole from quite a few other countries, including Australia and Estonia. We decided to do something about it and so started a mascot coalition that teamed up to get our mascots back. Our group grew to include more than 40 competitors, all working to return mascots to their rightful owners! Unfortunately, our "Mascot NATO" was not very effective, but at least we made new friends from all around the world!

Wang also won a Silver medal for Canada at the Biology Olympiad in 2017 and is another example of multidisciplinary excellence.

If Canada wants to promote excellence in chemistry, we need to celebrate the outstanding achievement of these students and support future Canadian students to achieve similar levels of proficiency in critical thinking, problem solving and chemistry knowledge. Philip Sohn, Head Mentor for the Canadian Team and former IChO 2010 participant in Toyko Japan is completing his Masters in chemistry at the University of Toronto. Sohn wants to create a network of graduate chemistry students as a powerful road forward for Canadian IChO training.

“We have grad students who helped us with our training,” says Xia. “The fact that they are also students, and they shared their problem solving tactics, was very relevant”.

Chemistry Olympiad participants often stay connected to the Canadian Chemistry Olympiad program and they are enthusiastic about the future. Right now just a handful of people are committed to supporting IChO training in Canada. With students, high school teachers, professors and chemistry graduate students all supporting the program, we would have a lot to look forward to in future IChOs.

“Personally, I think we should train our students to be the best,” concludes Dou. “A gold is achievable for Canadians.”

Note: The future of the Canadian Chemistry Olympiad program is in jeopardy because of lack of funding and lack of volunteers. All of the mentors, CCO and CCC contest organizers, writers and contributors are volunteers. The time required to run a state-of-the-art program needs to be shared by all institutions and individuals that believe in excellence in chemistry. Most countries have substantial financial and logistic support from their government, academic institutions, and businesses.  Many Ministries of Education provide marketing by which the entire country knows about and participates in the contest. In Canada, we have the somewhat unique challenge that Ministries of Education are provincial rather than national.  With the current resources the Canadian government and academic institutions are devoting to the CCO, we are barely keeping our head above water and the future of the Canadian Olympiad Team is in question. In Taiwan and Korea, students who qualify for IChO are celebrated across the nation and receive substantial scholarships to Universities. Canada needs to do better.

Jenny Pitt Lainsbury (mentor), Judy Xia, Sean Wang, Aaron Dou, Run Lin Wang, Philip Sohn (head mentor)

Jenny Pitt Lainsbury (mentor), Judy Xia, Sean Wang, Aaron Dou, Run Lin Wang, Philip Sohn (head mentor).

Judy Xia at a medieval castle near Bratislava

Judy Xia at a medieval castle near Bratislava.

Sean Wang at IChO open air festival free for all residents of Prague

Sean Wang at IChO open air festival free for all residents of Prague.

Aaron Dou at the closing ceremony with Nydus, the Canadian mascot

Aaron Dou at the closing ceremony with Nydus, the Canadian mascot.

Run Lin Wang on stage at the closing ceremonies

Run Lin Wang on stage at the closing ceremonies.

The Canadian 2018 IChO team with Copper Head, the mascot for the competition

The Canadian 2018 IChO team with Copper Head, the mascot for the competition.