Washington University students launch a new type of chemistry tournament

Katheryne Lamkin (left) and Annie Zheng, students at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, participated in the inaugural tournament in April 2016. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

High school science competitions are like oxygen and nitrogen — they’re everywhere. But the university students behind the Washington University Chemistry Tournament (WUCT) say there’s room to improve. Their event, now in its second year, focuses on collaboration, real-world applications and complex problem-solving — just like college chemistry.

Are you smarter than a high school chemistry student?

WUCT teams will be asked to answer questions like these. Can you? For answers, visit the chemistry tournament site.

At 8 a.m., a 15 mL dose of a gadolinium contrast dye is injected into a patient. Assume the gadolinium immediately mixes uniformly with the blood in circulation. The average body contains 5.1 liters of blood. What is the initial concentration of gadolinium (Gd) in circulation after injection? Assume the dye contains 1.825 mmol/mL of gadolinium, and ignore the increase in blood volume from the injection of the 15 mL dose.

A protein/enzyme located in the human body is catalase, which is known to act as a catalyst in order to break down hydrogen peroxide. In large quantities, hydrogen peroxide is lethal to humans, but with the addition of the catalase protein, it can decompose into harmless water and oxygen.
2H2O2 → H2O + O2
Given the decomposition reaction for hydrogen peroxide above, explain whether the hydrogen peroxide is the reducing or oxidizing agent, using half-reactions as evidence.

The half-life of caffeine in an adult is six hours. On average, a person can only fall asleep when the amount of caffeine drops below 2.5 mg per kg of body mass. A cup of robusta coffee contains 650 mg of caffeine. If over-caffeinated Oscar consumes one 12-ounce cup of robusta coffee (containing 650 mg of caffeine) at 8 a.m., how many mg of caffeine will remain in his body at 3:30 p.m.?

“There are many great science tournaments out there, and our members competed in many of them as high school students,” said junior Harshi Gupta, who co-founded the tournament with junior Abhishek Sethi. “But we wanted to create something that integrates all of the skills you need to succeed in a STEM career.”

Some 250 high school students from across the country will compete in the second annual tournament at locations across campus on Saturday, April 8. About 100 Washington University students will be on hand to help.

“The atmosphere is another thing that sets us apart,” said Sethi, who, like Gupta, is majoring in chemistry in Arts & Sciences. “It is so exciting for these students to be surrounded by people from across the nation who are as excited about science as they are. They also have a chance to explore this campus and meet amazing faculty members and college students.”

Participants will face challenges of varying difficulty. An“easier” problem may be as basic as balancing a redox reaction. A more challenging question may combine redox reactions with thermodynamics.

“In high school, there is a lot of memorization and chapter tests, but in college, you have to take those concepts and apply them to new situations,” Gupta said. “That’s the gap we are trying to bridge. And the students love it. The teams tell us it is refreshing to see chemistry outside the context of the textbook.”