UK National Finals of the RSC ‘Top of the Bench’ Competition

Top of the Bench UK National Finals-1Friday 15 April 2016 saw a team of four pupils from  Year 10-12 set off, accompanied by Mr R Johnston and Mrs H Millar from the Chemistry Department, to compete in the UK National Finals of the RSC ‘Top of the Bench’ Competition being held at Loughborough University. Ellen Gilmour, Auriel Guarino (both Year 10), Sarah Hadden (Year 11) and Eason Chan (Year 12) had competed at the Regional finals of the competition held at Queens’ University Belfast in January where they were successful in winning the honour of representing Northern Ireland at the UK Finals. This was only the second time that the school had entered a team in this prestigious competition which is organised annually.

The pupils were up early on Saturday morning and after a hearty breakfast they set off on the 30 minute walk through the university campus to the venue for the competition: The James France Exhibition Centre, Loughborough University. Thirty two teams representing every region in the UK were in attendance, from Tayside in Scotland to South East England. Following an introduction and briefing session it was down to work! Students had to first complete an individual written test then after lunch was a two hour practical test in the Chemistry Department laboratories. This was extremely challenging involving a complexometric titration using EDTA and Eriochrome Black T, identification of the concentration of an unknown solution from a calibration graph, construction of a redox cell reaction and calculation of the effect of temperature on the Nernst equation – most of these are concepts that would be covered as part of an A2 A-level specification! This is chemistry well beyond what the students are covering in class so this is stretch and challenge at its most extreme. While students were busy in the laboratories staff were entertained to a talk by one of the RSC Education Officers who outlined the vast range of support offered by the RSC to educators. A tour of the university’s laboratory facilities was also available.

The afternoon concluded with a Balloon debate event entitled ‘Choose your Future’ – this involved hearing about current research and voting for the research that the students would like to see progress. They had four choices: a novel method of reducing crime against heritage sites, research into inflammation, CO2 capture and utilization and final Clean Energy. The latter was a very popular choice (largely due to the presenter linking it to having a mobile phone battery that would never die so you would always be able to ‘text your bae!’) in the early stages of the debate but the final vote was extremely close with the CO2 capture just pipping the Clean Energy to the post – so the youth of today do have a social and moral conscience!

The presentation of the awards followed the Balloon debate. Unfortunately, the team were unsuccessful on this occasion with King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys, Birmingham emerging as the ‘Top of the Bench 2016’ winners. I think it’s ok to be beaten by some of the best grammar and public or private schools in England! It was an excellent opportunity for all of the pupils involved; new friendships were forged and hopefully a lifelong interest in the Chemical Sciences instilled. The team conducted themselves very well and were excellent ambassadors for not only the school but also for Northern Ireland. Well done to all concerned.