Three students from the University of Michigan participated in China’s National Undergraduate Chemistry Laboratory Tournament held at the Nanjing University in July, 2016. This year marked the 10th anniversary of the competition and the first time that foreign student were invited to participate. UM rising seniors Maddie Herman, Qiuhan Li, and Michael Payne accompanied UM professor Brian Coppola to China for this event.
The event drew teams from 43 campuses all over China, as well as the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and the University of Sheffield, UK. The foreign students participated fully as honorary guests, but who were not included in the final rankings.
On the first day, all of the students take a 2-hour written examination comprising 77 open questions on laboratory procedures and experimental methods. Students spend the second day on a set of organic, physical, or inorganic/analytical experiments under the watchful eyes of the judges.
The foreign students had an appropriately eye-opening experience. Mike Payne and Qiuhan Li, from the University of Michigan, both noted that the educational emphasis in China simply seems to be different--not better, not worse, just different. Payne continued, “My impression is that we focus less on the functional details of process and procedures, which we tend to just follow as written directions – or the operation is automated– and more time on design and interpretation. There were things on that test I just never thought about, and I find myself wishing I did.”
The students from Sheffield (Amy Smith, Jack Watson, and Dan Reader) reflected on the chance for comparison and conversation on how the UK system contrasted with both the Chinese and US programs. Smith agreed with Payne that the written examination emphasized aspects of laboratory practice that were not commonplace, in their experience. On the other hand, the Sheffield students were comfortable with their familiarity and experience covering a breadth of experimental techniques from their education.
Maddie Herman, a Michigan senior who is heading to UW-Madison for graduate school, is an organic chemist who ended up with the physical chemistry experiments. She thought her alma mater could learn from what China was doing. “Not only is the laboratory education here clearly more comprehensive, but some of our labs seem quite stale compared with the ones I was working on, and I would like to see these incorporated into our program.”
“We need to do everything we can to promote excellence in experimental chemistry because only through doing the best science can we solve some of the world’s most vexing problems,” says Peking University Professor Lianyun Duan, one of the original architects of the tournament.
A concurrent conference to share ideas about laboratory teaching included over 200 faculty members.
-- Reported by Brian Coppola