Forging global links in the laboratory

In July 2016, Dr Julie Hyde from our Department of Chemistry took three of her undergraduate students to Nanjing to take part in one of China's biggest school science tournaments.

Sheffield students would compete against other talented chemists in a laboratory competition well known in China for putting practical scientific skills to the test under pressure.

Julie shared her account of the trip and explained why it was such a great experience for the students.

Julie's account of the tournament (5-10 July 2016)

Through my personal international links made via the Royal Society of Chemistry, I had the great honour of being asked to take a team to participate in the 10th national undergraduate chemistry laboratory tournament.

The competition, held at Nanjing University, was a wonderful opportunity for the level 2 chemistry students who accompanied me – Dan Reader, Amy Smith and Jack Watson.

The tournament is a biannual competition open to top Chinese universities and it has been growing in popularity.

This year, 43 different Chinese universities took part, and to elevate the competition to a global level, other international universities were selected – we were invited to take part along with the University of Michigan, USA.

The idea behind the competition is to explore how Chinese universities are doing in the laboratory education of their students.

The competition is also keen to continue to encourage the best students to pursue their scientific career interests.

Arriving at Nanjing University Out for a meal
Opening ceremony Queuing

The outcomes of the competition are reported nationally although names of the universities always remain confidential. The names of the students themselves are listed and they’re awarded with a medal and a certificate during the final awards ceremony.

75 per cent of students get a prize – it’s broken down so that third prize goes to 35 per cent of students, second prize for 25 per cent, and first prize for 15 per cent of students.

The international teams and the Nanjing home team are not listed in the results of the Chinese students – instead, they are awarded a special prize.

To select student competitors, Chinese universities have to send 30 names before the competition. Then, just two weeks before the competition, the university is given the randomly selected names of the three students who will actually take part. Each of the three students from the same university will be assigned to a group A, B or C separately and given an individual number which is how the student is identified throughout the competition.

This process is carried out on the evening before the competition by the team guides who draw lots. The whole process is kept as anonymous as possible to ensure it’s all fair.

The competition opened with a welcome ceremony and the scene was set for the following two days.

During the ceremony the flag was handed to Nanjing University as they were the host university this time, by Professor Lianyun Duan, the Director of the Research Centre of Chemistry Education of Chinese Universities. The flag passes from university to university, just like an Olympic flame.

For the first task, the students sit a two hour practical related exam with challenging questions – only the very strongest students will gain high marks. This exam is worth 30 per cent of individual student marks.

The practical experiments were a secret until 7.30am on the morning of the laboratory section of the tournament and the students collected outside the lab in their group lines. Students’ personal numbers were placed at the front and the back of the lab coat for easy identification in the lab.

students in the lab students at the competition
hard at work hard at work

A teacher’s conference for the 190 teachers attending ran alongside the competition for exhange of ideas and pedagogy. I presented with Professor Brian Coppola of the University of Michigan about teaching at our respective universities.

What our students said:

What did the students think of the competition generally? The UK team said it was a “fantastic experience” and the USA team said it was “awesome”.

Dan:“The tournament was a really great experience, meeting new friends and seeing chemistry in a different culture.”

Amy: "It was a great opportunity to practice my practical skills in an unfamiliar environment with little preparation. It allowed me to realise my strengths and weaknesses and to further my understanding in the field of chemistry.”

Jack: “The tournament was a great way of understanding how education in chemistry is presented in different countries from the UK to China to the USA by interacting with students from the respective countries.”

The students felt that the practical activities were of a similar nature to the routine practicals that they have experienced during their first two undergraduate years in Sheffield. The exam was more challenging to them.

The awards ceremony was the finale of the event, a proud time for all university staff and the students involved — what a great way to finish the competition.

Special award Julie