Enrichment Programme Preview: Science Olympiads

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By Kang Yi Xi (15S03N)

Photo by Mani Hemavaathi (15S03N)

You might be one of those who can seamlessly recite zoological nomenclature, one of those who enjoy analyzing the reaction mechanisms of organic compounds, or one of those who feel at home with complex mathematical formulae. If you’re passionate about the sciences and willing to delve deeper into them, consider trying out for these prestigious science competitions: the Singapore Biology, Chemistry and Physics Olympiads. Topping the scoreboards may even grant you the opportunity to participate in the international versions of these competitions.

Expect to take part in plant identification sessions during your preparation for the Biology Olympiad
Expect to take part in plant identification sessions during your preparation for the Biology Olympiad.

Biology Olympiad

The scope of this competition is very broad, for it encompasses virtually the entirety of Campbell Biology—the holy book of many a Biology student. Prospective participants will have to undergo a relatively gruelling selection test before being shortlisted for this enrichment programme. According to participant Judy Hong (15S03R), the test in 2014 resembled an International Biology Olympiad (IBO) theory paper; hence, one can potentially prepare for the test by reviewing sample IBO papers available online and by reading Campbell Biology. Last year, a second selection test was also held some time after the commencement of the programme, though no one ended up being cut from the programme.

The competition itself consists of two rounds: the theory round, and the subsequent practical round. The former involves a series of multiple-choice questions, and only those who score well enough to get past this initial gauntlet will be eligible for the practical round. The practical round comprises 4 experiments under the themes: Animals (dissection and classification), Plants, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “I went through unique experiences, especially in the practical round. You don’t get to do things such as dissection, plant sectioning, and DNA extraction in your normal Biology classes,” said Judy. Judy also walked away with the impression that the Biology Olympiad is one of the hardest of the Olympiads to get a medal in; she pointed out that only half the participants (16 people) from our school qualified for the second round last year.

During protected time on Mondays, you can expect to engage in a variety of enriching activities. For the 2014 Olympiad, a focus was placed on lectures in the first two Terms, while practical sessions became the emphasis in Terms 3 and 4. Though the trainers change every year, the 2014 participants had the privilege of receiving coaching from IBO Gold Medallist Jin Chentian. Even so, be prepared for a lot of self-study—the lectures and practicals “are insufficient to fully prepare you for the Olympiad”, remarked Judy, who underscored the importance of consistent effort.

A sample of potassium ferrioxalate synthesized by the Chemistry Olympiad particpants.
A sample of potassium ferrioxalate synthesized by some Chemistry Olympiad participants.

Chemistry Olympiad

Like its counterpart above, the Chemistry Olympiad is only open to students who have passed a selection test—in 2014, only 28 people succeeded in qualifying for the enrichment programme, as Brendan Chong (15S03R) said. As the organizers limit the number of participants RI can send every year, further selection processes may also take place, a factor that makes consistent effort all the more imperative. The format of this Olympiad also involves a theory round and a practical round, with participation in the latter similarly being contingent on one’s performance in the former. Only 53 students in Singapore managed to qualify for the practical round last year.

The protected time slot on Mondays will be occupied by theory training sessions, which are mostly delivered as lectures. Short assignments will also be distributed after these sessions for you to hone your skills in the concepts learnt. Training sessions will become more intensive from Term 3 onward, with sessions being held on Wednesday afternoons as well last year. Moreover, you probably won’t get ample opportunities to relax after the Promotional Examinations either, as practical training sessions will be held about five times a week. “We got to do titrations in different contexts, organic and inorganic qualitative analysis and synthesis. Prior to the practical round, we did a practical test with all of these components!” said Brendan regarding the practical training sessions. He also appreciated the trainers’ supportive and helpful nature, citing how they were willing to hold an extra practical session for a few students who had failed to obtain a product of the desired quality.

Physics Olympiad

Unlike the other two Olympiads, the Physics Olympiad is targeted at those in Physics RA. As participant Parthasarathy Sreemathy (15S06J) explained, all Physics RA students will learn the Olympiad’s syllabus during their lessons. However, if you’re a non-Physics RA student willing to put in some extra work, you can still sign up for the Olympiad and be given the relevant notes, though you will have to rely heavily on self-study to master the required content. Though the content departs significantly from the H2 syllabus, Sreemathy still felt that the deeper understanding of the concepts she gained throughout the programme did help her do better in H2 Physics, and concurrently served as a good precursor for H3 Physics. “What we learn in the Physics Olympiad is harder than what is taught in the H3 syllabus!” she remarked.

The competition itself also consists of a theory round followed by a practical round for those who have succeeded in the former. The theory round lasts a taxing 4 hours and contains ten questions, while the practical round requires participants to conduct experiments and gather data. Physics RA students will still have to attend training sessions, which were not held during Monday protected time last year but occurred in the late afternoon. “During these training sessions, we go through Olympiad questions, which we are expected to have attempted in our own time,” said Sreemathy. More intensive training sessions will also be held in the time between the conclusion of the Promotional Examinations and the start of the dreaded Project Work Oral Presentations, as the Olympiad takes place during this interim period. In any case, don’t be demoralized by your perceived incompetence at the subject; as Sreemathy reassured, ”If you face any problems in the beginning, don’t let it dishearten you, because truthfully speaking, it is possible to be one of the best in about a few months’ time if you start studying very early.”

Ultimately, all 3 participants interviewed by Raffles Press clearly valued the extensive learning process they went through more than what took place during the competition itself—as Brendan succinctly put it, “Don’t think too hard about winning a medal or doing well, just enjoy the experience!” So, if you’re a science student eager to meet like-minded peers and to stretch your limits, do think about trying your hand at these highly-acclaimed competitions.

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