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Joseph Houck Participates in Virtual International Chemistry Olympiad

27 August 2020

Associate Teaching Professor of Chemistry Joseph Houck recently participated in the first ever virtual International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO), a chemistry competition for high school students that aims to encourage and recognize talented young scientists. While the event benefits high school students, it is made possible by the efforts of chemistry faculty and teachers who work to mentor the students. This year, Associate Teaching Professor of Chemistry Joseph Houck was one of those faculty members. 

Houck, who was named a mentor for the US National Chemistry Olympiad Team (USNCO), originally planned to travel to Istanbul, Turkey to participate in the event. However, the competition was moved to an online format because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As a mentor, Houck would ordinarily be responsible for coaching students during the annual USNCO training camp, accompanying the team to the event, inspecting lab stations, and editing, translating, and evaluating the exam. Although the event was moved to a virtual format, Houck and the other mentors played a similar role. 

In collaboration with the American Chemical Society, Houck and the other mentors developed a virtual training camp. For two weeks for eight hours a day, mentors gave lectures and administered practice exams and questions to the students. Mentors also invited guest speakers from all over the country to give special lectures to the students, an unexpected advantage introduced by the virtual format.

Although the camp was challenging for both mentors and students, Houck noted that he enjoyed working with the students and valued the opportunity to teach topics that he wouldn’t normally teach at Penn State. He also noted that future groups of IChO students would benefit from the lessons learned during the virtual camp. Ahead of the camp, mentors and organizers implemented a robust learning management system that will continue to benefit future students for years to come.  

Time for fun was also built into the camp schedule. Mentors and students enjoyed various virtual social events, including a chance for students to video chat with IChO alums from around the country. This networking opportunity was a unique advantage of the virtual camp. 

“Future camps will definitely benefit from the experience we had this year,” Houck said, adding, “it was really rewarding to work with all of the students.” 

When it came time for the virtual competition, which was held between July 23 and 29, the students took part in a written exam. Mentors spent time reviewing the exam ahead of time and were on hand to arbitrate the results as necessary. Although participants would ordinarily take a practical, lab exam as well, this part of the event was canceled in keeping with safety precautions.  

However, all the hard work paid off. This year, all four students on the American team were awarded gold medals—meaning that they scored in top eleven percent of participants—with one student even earning top gold.

“It was a great experience,” Houck noted. “Although it was very rewarding, I hope the Olympiad can be held in person next year. Coming together and meeting people from all over the world is really a great opportunity for these students.”

"Joe is an active member of the American Chemical Society, Younger Chemists Committee, serves as chair of the ACS local section, and co-advises the Nittany Chemical Society," added Associate Head of Undergraduate Education Dan Sykes. "Further, Joe organizes and presides over several national symposia on instructional best practices each year, develops and leads a series of chemistry workshops for local school children and the Millennium Scholars Summer Bridge Program, and has designed several faculty professional development workshops which focus on teaching with technology.  Joe is a valued member of the instructional program and the broader science education community as well as a departmental leader in education technology."