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Perfect pipetting High-stakes science contests draw elite crowds

A student mulls over the practical portion of his exam at the International Biology Olympiad in Bern

(Courtesy of International Biology Olympiad)

Many of the world’s best young scientists try their hand at international knowledge-based competitions, one of which was just held in Switzerland. They come for the sightseeing and networking, but for many, there’s much more at stake.

The atmosphere is quiet and focused during the series of tests that make up the International Biology Olympiad (IBO), hosted by Bern University this year. The practical portion is taken in the lab, where students pipette samples, count specimens, and reach a conclusion that’s either right or wrong based on the evidence. Then, the theoretical portion – given in everyone’s native language and done on tablet computer for the first time in 2013 – tests general knowledge of the subject.

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With his plans to become a doctor – and a cardiothoracic surgeon, at that – this year’s competition winner, 18-year-old American Charlie Gleason, clearly has big dreams.

For him, winning the IBO was just the icing on the cake. He has already gotten into a top college – Brown University, part of the American Ivy League –  so his gold medal at the competition didn’t factor into whether or not he got admitted. But, some of the most elite universities do take the results of international competitions like the IBO into account when deciding on admissions and scholarships, says Noémie Jordi, a former competitor who helped organize the IBO competition for the Swiss delegation.

“Winning a medal can really open doors for students who want to study at the big American or British universities, offering scholarships to such universities that they could normally only dream about,” she says.

International Science Olympiads

The Biology Olympiad is just one of multiple International Science Olympiads offered to students at a global level. In addition to biology, there are competitions in physics, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, philosophy, environmental science, geography, astronomy, linguistics, earth sciences and inventions.

Students qualify to represent their countries through a series of national tests. Then, in most cases, their countries pay their way to the international competition.

Each country also sends jury members (usually teachers or university professors in the field) who act as counselors for the students and also as adjudicators for some of the exam portions.

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Less pressure for the Swiss

Several science disciplines have their own Olympiads held around the world  (see infobox), and two Swiss students took bronze at the International Chemistry Olympiad in Moscow just last week. But, in Switzerland – where students get on an academic track very early in their educational careers – medaling at such an event doesn’t usually have many consequences beyond pride for the students and their schools.

“It can really motivate the students if they are successful,” says Christoph Gerber, a biology teacher at Thun’s Seefeld Gymnasium. “But if they have finished their baccalaureate, they can automatically go to university, so the IBO results don’t really play a big role.”

Still, extracurriculars like the IBO and Schweizer Jugend Forscht (SJF) – which provides young Swiss science talents with opportunities outside the classroom, including competitions – can give young Swiss insight into what they may want to do for a future career. Sponsors like pharmaceutical companies Novartis and Roche have funded both the IBO and SJF, in part in hopes of attracting the best and brightest to their workforce someday. But, SJF director Stefan Horisberger insists such businesses must be mindful of how they approach students.

“During adolescence, they have a critical attitude about everything,” he says. “So you don’t get their attention if you present your business as the best and only option for their future career. The more you discuss things eye to eye with young people, the more success you will have. They want to be taken seriously and not hit over the head with things.”

Schweizer Jugend Forscht

The Schweizer Jugend forscht (SJf) foundation has been encouraging and providing young Swiss science talents with opportunities outside the classroom, including competitions, for nearly 50 years.

For about 35 of those years, SJf “saw its role in developing Switzerland’s elite. Back then, the attitude was that whoever participates in SJF has already almost won the Nobel Prize,” says director Stefan Horisberger.

More recently, however, the organisation has worked to diversify its offerings and make them attractive to all students -  in 2013, for the first time ever, SJf had more women than men participating in its annual science competition, which Horisberger attributes in part to a more streamlined communication strategy.

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Recognition at home

For students from other countries, international science competitions can offer much more than just gauging career interests, perhaps nowhere more so than in Iran: there, students can skip mandatory military service and go directly to university if they win a gold medal at the IBO, according to Jordi. Two Iranian teens were among this year’s 25 gold-medal winners.

Ryoichi Matsuda, the coordinator of the Japanese IBO team,  tells that all medal winners from Japan get their pictures and names in “almost all of the Japanese newspapers.” And, he adds, they don’t have to sit for university entrance exams.

For Russian students, a medal at the IBO also means skipping out on entrance exams for university study, and they receive a Presidential Grant of about $500 per month during their years in college. (Higher education is generally free of charge in Russia, so this is extra spending cash).

But, says Russian team coordinator Alexander Rubtsov, the benefits go beyond money.

“For our students, the medals give great satisfaction and pride for themselves and for the country. Participation in the IBO (even without medals) is extraordinary and a very special event in the lives of our students.”

(Courtesy of International Biology Olympiad)

Training is key

According to Jordi, jury members from various countries meet during the competition to talk about standardising the teaching of biology. But, she says, it’s always a difficult conversation, since standards can vary within a single country, let alone the whole world. Though most of the students use the same textbook for much of their studying, individual countries prepare students differently and focus on different aspects of the curriculum.

Two competitors from Pakistan, Maha Nadir and Muhammad Sheharyar Warraich, will sit for medical school entrance exams shortly after returning to Islamabad from Switzerland. They say that all the IBO competitors are “awesome,” so countries that produce medalists must put intensive training programmes in place to prepare their students. No students from Pakistan won medals this year; Nadir placed the highest, in 168th place, earning a merit award.

“We are not trained that extensively in practical exams, but other countries are given more exposure to practical preparation,” she says. “We lack in that area.”

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