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What's In A Name?

Washington, D.C.’s Union Station isn’t usually a part of my commute. I went there after work yesterday on a random errand, and as I rode the escalator up from the Metro, I noticed the person in front of me was wearing a t-shirt with an intriguing design (the one in the picture). We here at C&ENtral Science love chemistry t-shirts, so I had to ask her– are you a chemist? Why are you wearing that shirt?

My escalator companion, Linda Churchill (“Like Winston,” she said proudly), doesn’t call herself a chemist. She referred to herself as “a retired science teacher.” But she’s spent the last several months training middle school and high school students to do titrations, chromatography, and fiber analysis. Sounds like a chemist to me, at least in spirit.

Churchill is helping to coach the state of Alaska’s team of 17 middle and high school students for the 2008 Science Olympiad, which is taking place in Washington, D.C., this weekend. Science Olympiad aims to boost the quality of science education year-round, but the real fun for the students comes in the trip to the nationwide tournament, where this year, 46 out of 50 states will be represented.

There are a number of different contests in the competition, and from talking to the 8th and 9th graders on the team, I got the impression that chemistry is everywhere in that program. Take the event called “Food Science,” which involves titrations for determining calcium in a liquid food sample, as well as multiple other tests for sugar, starch, iron, and more. All this happens on the clock, and students must come up with their best guesses as to what their food sample might be based on their own analysis. There’s more: The “Crime Busters” event includes the stereotypical DNA-analysis experiments one might see on TV. But the students told me it also involves polymer testing and chromatography. Plus, there’s “Protein Modeling,” and the more straightforward “Chem Lab.”

I’m positive that I knew neither the word “polymer” nor the word “chromatography” at these students’ age. But maybe that’s because I never got the chance to participate in this competition. Science Olympiad’s been around since the 1980′s–have you participated, gentle readers? How have the events changed with time? It seems like some of the newer Olympiad events, such as “Junkyard Challenge,” have at least been inspired by popular TV shows. Who knows? Maybe the same team of people are behind both.

I won’t be in town this weekend, but if you’re in the D.C. area, these events could be worth checking out.

Photo: Discovery Education free clip art gallery

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