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Academy News

Students compete in National Chemistry Olympiad Camp

  • Published
  • By Leslie Finstein
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Twenty high school students from around the nation spent two weeks honing their chemistry skills at the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad Study Camp at the Air Force Academy May 31 through Tuesday.

These 14- to 18-year-old students were selected through a testing process organized by the American Chemical Society. Of the 10,000 who begin the testing process, 1,000 take the second test, and of that group, only the top 20 are invited to the study camp. The goal of this camp is to select the four best students to compete at the 2011 International Chemistry Olympiad, or IChO, in Ankara, Turkey.

This will be the 43rd IChO, a competition that began in Eastern Europe and expanded over the years to include other nations worldwide. The U.S. began participating in 1983, and the Academy has hosted the study camp every year since.

Kimberly Gardner, an associate professor in the Academy's Chemistry Department, has been the camp director since 1998. She said this camp is no vacation.

"During the two weeks of camp, the longest the students are allowed to 'train' as a team, they are taught chemistry at the same level of an undergraduate chemistry major in all five fields of chemistry -- inorganic, organic, analytical, biochemistry and physical chemistry," Ms. Gardner said.

Last weekend, 20 became six, as 14 students were sent home. The labs and exams they took between May 31 and June 9 served to narrow the field to this group of six, from which the final four and two alternates are chosen for the IChO.

Students Sriram Pendyala and Tayyab Shah, both 17, seemed to enjoy the camp despite the long hours and workload.

"It's great being around people who know and are interested in the same things as you," Mr. Pendyala said. "We definitely have a lot of inside jokes."

"I like the type of problems that the Chemistry Olympiad presents," Mr. Shah said. "They involve a lot of problem solving so it's more fun than what you do in your high school classes."

This is Mr. Pendyala's second year at the camp; he made it to the top 20 in 2010 but did not make the cut for the IChO. So he did what any dedicated student would do: he studied chemistry extensively over the last year to prepare for the test and camp this year.

The lead mentor for the group, Dr. Kristin Fletcher, said that of the 20 invited to this year's camp, seven of them are like Mr. Pendyala, students who are back for a second time. That makes Mr. Shah's presence in the top six remarkable because it's his first year at the camp, which means he's grasped topics in college level chemistry in just two weeks.

Ms. Fletcher, along with Dr. Kelli Slunt, and Steven Lantos, have guided and graded the students as mentors. These positions are applied for one year in advance through the American Chemical Society and once selected, they incur a three-year commitment. Ms. Fletcher, who works for Chromatic Technologies Incorporated in Colorado Springs, is in her third year.

Brian Lee, 21, serves as a peer mentor to the group. Mr. Lee participated in the study camp himself in 2006 and 2007, reaching the IChO his second year. This is his second year as a peer mentor.

"I was inspired to come back and do this because of the peer mentor I had when I was a student in the program," said Mr. Lee, who will begin graduate studies at Harvard University this fall.

Ms. Gardner said many of the students have had little interaction with the military prior to attending this camp.

"Many have a preconceived notion when they arrive," Ms. Gardner said. "When they leave, they take with them a new viewpoint and respect for this institution."

The mentors said the Academy is a great host for the Chemistry Olympiad.

"The Academy's department of chemistry is so supportive and their years of experience really help the camp run so smoothly," said Mr. Lee.

"The teachers here love to teach, they love chemistry, and it's special for the students to see that," said Dr. Fletcher. "The support here and dedication helps these students succeed at the IChO."

The final four selected for the IChO on 15 June are;

Konstantin Borisov, North Allegheny High School, Pa.
Tayyab Shah, Vestal High School, N.Y.
Elmer Tan, John P. Stevens High School, N.J.
Joe Tung, Gretchen Whitney High School, Calif.

Team alternates are;

Kevin Yan, Wootton High School, Md.
Sriram Pendyala, Mira Loma High School, Calif.