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Vol. 31 No. 1
January-February 2009

Celebrating Worldwide Excellence in Chemistry

by Gábor Magyarfalvi

The 40th International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO) returned to one of the countries that founded the event. In July 2008, the competition was held for the fourth time in Hungary. The world and the Olympiad have changed considerably since that event 20 year ago. The change is even more pronounced when we compare it to the very first IChO in Prague in 1968, a rather local meeting of 18 students from three Central European countries. We were happy to have a Hungarian mentor and a student from that first Olympiad as special guests during the Olympiad.

Students from the world over participated in the International Chemistry Olympiad, which features theoretical and practical exams designed to challenge students’ creativity.

Participation and diversity have greatly increased since the beginnings. This year, 257 students from 66 countries participated. The map on page 11 shows the countries affiliated with the Olympiad. Three countries were observing in preparation for joining. Sadly, Africa is underrepresented on the map, especially since the Egyptian team could not participate this year.

This year, for the first time, a generous grant of USD 10 000 from IUPAC helped economically disadvantaged countries participate in the Olympiad. The Steering Committee of the IChO allocated the money to help with the travel expenses and participation fees of seven Central Asian and Latin American nations.

In his welcoming message, George A. Olah, Nobel laureate patron of the event, said “There are only a few meetings in chemistry that have such a wide participation, reaching almost to the 80 percent of the population of the globe.” Indeed, one of the main purposes of the meeting is to provide students with international experience and help them develop a network of friends from around the world who share the same interest. The core goals of the Olympiad are to motivate participants to excel and build their self-confidence as they solve interesting and challenging chemistry problems. Many former participants are working their way towards prominence in our science.

The schedule and rules for the Olympiad are largely unchanged from the practices described earlier in an earlier CI article by Jan Apotheker (Jul-Aug 2005 CI, p. 3). The five-hour practical and theoretical exams are spread over two days. The rest of the schedule was devoted to sightseeing and exploring Hungary and Hungarian culture. There was time for team-building games and a chemistry demonstration lecture. A team of 80 Hungarian students, many of whom spoke the languages of the visitors helped ensure that the participants relaxed and enjoyed their time.

The accompanying mentors had considerably less time for tourism. Finalizing, translating, and correcting the exams kept them busy during the 10 days of the Olympiad. They exchanged souvenirs and e-mail addresses like the students, but the exchange of teaching experiences and chemistry problems was equally important.

Although the form of the Olympiad has not changed, the style and content of the exams was slightly altered this year. Sometimes, the Olympiad problems necessarily extend beyond the secondary school curriculum of most countries. A syllabus and rule set guides the organizers when preparing the exams for acceptance by the International Jury. This syllabus was reorganized this year to make preparation for the Olympiad easier. Solving chemical problems requires the knowledge of basic chemical concepts and skills together with factual data. The new syllabus tries to define the factual knowledge and strictly limits the number of advanced topics the students should be familiar with.

The organizers’ intentions were to move the focus toward challenging students’ creativity and thinking rather than assessing familiarity with recent scientific achievements or university-level materials. Students were not expected to memorize formulas or facts, but they were asked to apply well-known concepts to solve problems. This meant that the problem topics were interesting, but a little less prominent than usual, with less state-of-the-art science included.

The advanced topics were announced and demonstrated in a 40-problem preparatory set that was published in January. The set, which illustrates the style and difficulty of the problems, is intended to assist students during preparation for the test. Officially two weeks of special preparation are allowed. The topics and competition problems are available on the Olympiad website.

The Science Committee began working on the problems in 2006. Most team members were affiliated with Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest, the main organizing institution and the venue for the exams. Hungary is fortunate enough to have many individuals with Olympiad experience, so other major Hungarian universities and a research institute were represented on the board. A core team of 12 persons worked in secrecy on the problems. By the time of the Olympiad, this group had been expanded to 37, including young colleagues and graduate and undergraduate students who could help run the exams and evaluate the answers. The latter was no small feat considering the 257 papers and the one-day deadline. The team’s most important contribution was to test the exams two weeks before the Olympiad and then correct each other’s work. The thorough checking allowed organizers to eliminate virtually all ambiguities in the questions and the marking scheme. The equipment and procedure of the practical tasks was also finalized after testing and organizers obtained a good set of statistical data on the variability of the results.

All this work made the task of the International Jury easier. There were no major alterations of the exams when discussed by the delegations. The usually exhausting jury discussions on the problems and marking were over in two hours and left the mentors contented. As each student can work in a language of his or her choice, all problems had to be formulated so that the answers were non verbal (multiple choice or numerical).

The laboratory portion of the exam poses more difficulties. Setting up 270 identical work desks required all student laboratories of the Chemistry Institute and the assistance of all technicians. To illustrate the scale of the logistical effort, there were more than 12 pallets of equipment that arrived from just the main supplier. When preparing the tasks, organizers had to consider the cost, but their main consideration was that most secondary school students have very little laboratory experience. It has happened in previous Olympiads that carrying out the explicitly detailed procedures in the five hours of the exam would have been difficult even for trained chemists. Organizers kept the three types of tasks that typically comprise the exam (qualitative and quantitative analysis, preparative work), so the challenge was not in the running of the experiments, but their planning and interpretation.

The simple synthesis task was the acetylation of glucose and isomerisation of the β isomer into the α form. This latter step was to be followed by thin-layer chromatography. Performance on this task was marked based on the yield, while the titration task was graded according to accuracy. The quantitative results led to the determination of the composition of the precipitate that forms in the reaction of zinc ions and potassium hexacyanoferrate(II). The most difficult task proved to be the simplest. Students were given eight colorless solutions, indicator paper, a heat gun, test tubes, and a solubility table. It took a lot of effort for them to identify the two ions present in each solution from the long list of possible answers.

Sixty-six countries participated in the 2008 International Chemistry Olympiad. Unfortunately, Africa was under represented.

The theoretical problems as usual, involved a wide range of chemical subdisciplines (organic, inorganic, analytical, and physical chemistry). However, unlike in recent years, there was no spectroscopy, nor quantum chemistry among the topics. The problem sets usually include references to the scientific achievements of the host country. These references were mainly relegated to the preparatory problems, but still the chemistry of carbocations (George A. Oláh) and the synthesis and metabolism of vinpocetine (an original drug discovered in Hungary) were the subjects of a task.

Organizers tried to include relatively easy problems together with questions that challenged even the best students. Probably three tasks out of the nine belonged to the first category: a pH calculation with a twist, the chemistry of thallium iodides, and the synthesis of azulene from naphthalene. In one problem, students had to find out that during the photolysis of aqueous cerium(III) solutions water is split into hydrogen and oxygen. In another problem, they worked out the crystal structure of methane and chlorine hydrates. The favorite task of many mentors was a kinetics problem. From relatively simple measurements students were able to find out the mechanism and the molecular level processes of the oxidation of dithionate ions. Another task that solicited a lot of emotion (praise and shock equally) was based on the chemistry of some barium salts, but their identification was rather difficult based on the information given.

The distribution of the scores was encouraging. Hardly any students came away without at least partial marks. The highest scores in both the theoretical and practical tasks were achieved by Yongping Fu of China, with 87 percent of the total score. Although the competition is strictly between individuals, the list of the best students is dominated by participants from Asian countries and former Soviet republics. Sixty percent of participants returned home with a medal. Hopefully, all participants were left with a sense of achievement and a memory of a unique experience.

The organization of the Olympiad was centered at the Eötvös Loránd University, with the Hungarian Chemical Society as a co-organizer. Most of the considerable cost of the event was carried by the Hungarian Ministry of Education, with significant support coming from the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. Gedeon Richter Ltd. was the main corporate sponsor; Servier, EGIS, and MOL were sponsors; and Sigma-Aldrich, Microsoft, Cerbona, and Heidolph were partners. The participation fee paid by the countries is mainly a nominal contribution.

The next Olympiad, which will take place in Cambridge, United Kingdom, will be a cooperative effort between the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford and the Royal Society of Chemistry. Japan, Turkey, USA, and Singapore will host events in the coming years, so the future of the Olympiads seems to be bright and secure.

Gábor Magyarfalvi <> is an assistant professor at the Institute of Chemistry at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. A silver medalist of the 1989 IChO, Magyarfalvi was chairman of the Science Committee for the 40th IChO.

For information about the 2009 event, see <>.

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