I have taught for almost 30 years and have attended my fair share of professional development. Many of these have been very good (ChemEd, BCCE, ACS, NSTA, and ICE) but nothing has been as motivating, influential, and beneficial to my career as getting involved in the Chemistry Olympiad. Every year, the ACS sponsors a local section contest for high school students. It consists of 60 multiple choice questions and it is the qualifying round for the ACS National Exam. Each local ACS section is entitled to certain number of students to take the national exam based on the number of members in the local section. Here is Southern California (a very large local section) we usually have around 15 kids who can participate each year. Many local sections only get one or two. The national exam consists of 60 multiple choice questions, ten or so free response questions, and two laboratory procedures. From the crop of kids doing the national exam 20 are chosen each year to attend the national training camp at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for a chance to represent the USA at the International Chemistry Olympiad.
On the surface this might sound like one more standardized test to tackle, but it is not like that at all. I am always telling my students of the importance of comparing themselves with students outside of our school. If they want one of those coveted positions at Cal Tech or MIT they will be competing with a really strong group of candidates nationwide. This contest is an excellent way to do that.
I first signed my kids up for the Olympiad as a way to review for the AP exam. After taking part in the contest my students were very disappointed in their performance and it immediately became clear to me that I needed to rethink my teaching of many topics. There were topics that I ignored because they never showed up on AP exams (crystal structure) and that I thought were okay to ignore. The Olympiad immediately showed me that any subject is fair game and worth covering.
After a year or two I knew that I was hooked and wanted to see my students progress into the national exam. I started looking over past exams and quickly realized that material way beyond the AP curriculum was included on this exam, including topics from organic and physical chemistry.
What makes this such a wonderful experience for me and for my students? It pushes me to be a better teacher, to teach more in depth, to cover topics that we may otherwise just skip over, and helps to shape my laboratory program. The laboratory exercises that students are expected to perform are excellent. The labs are what you might expect based on topics. But the way they are presented is excellent. You are provided no procedures, just a problem that you want to solve and the acceptable equipment to use. Students must design their own procedure, have it approved, and complete it in about 45 minutes. Two labs are required each year and you get a total of 90 minutes to finish them. Quite often one of the experiments will be something that we have already done in class but with a different set of equipment available. This keeps my kids thinking during the year about whether or not there are other ways of conducting our experiments. This moves us quite a long way past mere cookbook labs.
Without a doubt, the most difficult thing I have ever done as a teacher is get seriously involved with the Chemistry Olympiad. It is also the most rewarding thing I have ever done. It has pushed me way outside of my comfort zone and it is still pushing me more and more every year. The next step is my goal to serve as the mentor for Team USA.
For general information you can browse through the materials on the ACS Chemistry Olympiad pages of the ACS website.