Teens compete in chemistry contests

Engage Your 2028 Workforce Now

March 6, 2024
Finding operators and engineers to continue where Baby Boomers left off is a contest-winning proposition.

I believe the children are our future. Yeah, yeah, yeah — I know Whitney Houston has the market on that phrase. Although George Benson originally recorded “Greatest Love of All” in 1977 – eight years before Whitney’s interpretation. But let’s not get in the weeds on the music front; I came here to talk about children and the future.

For years, the chemical industry has been grappling with ways to maintain a robust workforce with a looming Baby Boomer retirement on the horizon. The best way to fortify future staff is to engage them early on.

A few months ago, I received an email from Ms. Stephanie, a homeschool teacher. She contacted me to express her “gratitude for your fantastic STEM resources.” It seems that Ms. Stephanie and her students stumbled upon an article from 2003 that featured links to various chemical engineering landing pages. According to Ms. Stephanie, “This page has been a treasure trove for our homeschooling community, igniting our students' passion for STEM.”

I poked around this 21-year-old article and found most of the links still worked (I removed references to pages that have long since given up the ghost to the great internet in the sky).

One of Ms. Stephanie’s students, Leslie, wanted to alert me that other great resources are available and even provided a link to “Free STEM Resources Provided By Public Libraries.” 

Students like Leslie will be directing operations in a few years. She and her peers will be the ones discovering more efficient processes, solving environmental issues and building a sustainable future.

Indeed, last year Chemical Processing wrote about a high school student who made the case for Styrofoam waste as a more effective solution for reducing the impact of future oil spills. Her project focused on a class of nanoporous materials called hyper cross-linked polymers, or HCPs. 

So how do you recruit for this talent now? Pay attention to associations that host camps and contests. 

The American Chemical Society hosts its High School Chemistry Olympiad, which tests students' knowledge of chemistry concepts, theory and applications. Top-performing students move on to the International Chemistry Olympiad.

For 2024’s Chemical Educational Foundation’s National You Be The Chemist Challenge, over 17,000 students participated. Now, the top five teams will compete on June 10 in a Q&A session on stage with a panel of judges. The questions encompass the research the students performed in making their 5- to 7-minute videos on sustainability. 

This year marks the 22nd annual Chemagination Competition for high school students, particularly those who have completed or are now taking advanced placement or honors-level chemistry. 

The Chemagination contest was created by the American Chemical Society as an optional educational outreach activity for local sections of the professional society.

High school students are asked to imagine that they are living 25 years in the future and have been invited to write an article for ChemMatters, a magazine for high school students that focuses on the role of chemistry in everyday life.

In the article, the team addresses this challenge: 

“Describe a recent breakthrough or innovation in chemistry (and/or its applications) that has improved the quality of people’s lives today.” 

The article must be written as if the students are living in the year 2049, looking back at innovations that have occurred since 2024. 

Their innovation should fit into one of the following five categories: 

  • Alternative Energy Sources
  • Medicine/Health
  • Environment
  • New Materials
  • Proteins/Protein Chemistry

The heavy hitter in terms of prize money is the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which awards tuition scholarships, summer internships, and cash prizes of up to $75,000. High school students present their independent research projects to a global audience. ISEF provides a platform for sharing groundbreaking research, networking with peers, and gaining valuable experience in scientific communication.

The participants in these events are who you want to work for you in the future. And as George and Whitney say, “Teach them well and let them lead the way.”

About the Author

Traci Purdum | Editor-in-Chief

Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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