Sue Thompson, Royal Society of Chemistry
Enthusing and exciting children with chemistry and encouraging them to consider further education and careers with chemistry is key to our efforts of securing the next generation of talented chemical scientists. The Top of the Bench competition is one of our longest-standing activities for school children: together with our members we have been organising and running it for more than 20 years.
Each year, teams of four 13- to 16-year-old students compete for the Top of the Bench trophy. The competition starts with regional heats, which are organised by our Local Sections and usually take place in the autumn term. Each Local Section committee decides the format of the regional heat, and they take on various forms, including quizzes, presentations and practical experiments. The regional winners then have a chance to compete against each other in the UK final in spring.
Beyond UK boundaries
This year our Local Sections organised a total of 28 regional heats across the UK. In addition, the Belgium Local Section’s European regional event allowed students from schools in Belgium and Luxembourg to take part in the competition.
'Dr Who' theme in the East Midlands
In the East Midlands, for example, ten teams took part in the regional Top of the Bench final at Derby University in January. “To get to this stage, the teams had already ranked in the top three in their local competition heats, which had involved a chemistry quiz. The regional finals involved another challenging theory paper, as well as a practical challenge in which the students had to ‘Save Dr Who’s TARDIS’ by setting up a cooling reaction to reach a specific temperature in exactly one minute,” explains Sarah Parkin, a year-11 student at John Cleveland College.
After completing the tasks, which challenged the students’ teamwork skills, theoretical knowledge, practical ability and problem-solving skills, they were able to take part in a practical display of reactions involving chemiluminescence.
Adnan Aouad, a year-9 student on a team representing the John Cleveland College, Hastings Academy and Redmoor Academy, commented on the day: “I had fun, and enjoyed the demonstration. It has definitely inspired me.”
Scotland's students quizzed about chemistry
Just a few days later, aspiring chemists also gathered at St Andrews University in Scotland for the regional final, which was organised in collaboration with the Tayside Local Section. After three previous knock-out rounds to fend off 22 other teams from across the Fife, Tayside and Perthshire regions, four teams put their chemical science knowledge to the test in a chemistry-themed quiz.
In Northern Ireland, the first ever Top of the Bench event also took place in form of a quiz. 16 schools took part in the competition event at Queen’s University, Belfast. “The standard of students was excellent and their enthusiasm and knowledge of chemistry was great. We look forward to Northern Ireland holding an annual regional heat and hope to have more and more schools taking part from across the province,” said Northern Ireland Local Section Chair Mark Collins.
His enthusiasm was mirrored by one of the teachers attending the event. Dr Brian McMurray from the Belfast Royal Academy feels that it is a “great idea to encourage chemistry and allow students from across the province to mix and socialise with each other.”
Traci Moore, Head of Chemistry at Durham School, which competed in the regional heat organised by the Teesside Local Section echoed this, saying: “Our boys really enjoyed themselves and had their eyes opened to some of the competition they have in science from their local peers! They particularly enjoyed the practical, and were talking about it all the way home!”
Beijing: the newest event
For the first time ever, we also had a Top of the Bench competition in China, which was organised by the Beijing Local Section. Students from five schools tackled two chemical quizzes – which included famous scientists and their inventions – and two practical challenges at Tsinghua University. Because of the logistical challenges, the winning students from Beijing Royal School did not attend the final in the UK, but were instead presented with a trophy by the British Ambassador His Excellency Sebastian Wood and Professor David Clary CChem FRSC FRS, a former Faraday Division president.
The final battle
The winning team from each of the UK and the European heats was invited to attend the national final at Loughborough University on 29 March. The theme for the day was ‘water’, which connected all of the challenges students had to tackle. Following an individual knowledge test, students had to work in teams on two different practical activities, which involved using laboratory equipment that they would normally not have access to in school. After the official competition, all attendees had a chance to hear Professor Colin Creaser from Loughborough University give an engaging lecture titled ‘What has Analytical Chemistry ever done for us?’
Revealing the winners
The day ended with the award of the prizes. The team from Ardingly College, which was selected through the Downland Local Section’s heat emerged as overall winners. The students received the Top of the Bench trophy from Professor Ray Jones, president of the Organic Division and Professor of Organic and Biological Chemistry at Loughborough University. In addition, they each received gift vouchers and £500 for their school to spend on chemistry equipment. The runners-up were from Bolton School (Boys’ Division) from the Manchester & District Local Section.
In addition, we award the Jacquie Clee award for the most outstanding individual contribution to the competition. This year, it went to Annanay Kapila from Nottingham High School, East Midlands Local Section.
The competition’s success becomes clear when hearing what Jane Downing, teacher at the British School Brussels had to say about the journey to Loughborough: “Throughout the journey the students chatted non-stop about their chemistry, each trying to help the other revise the hardest topics. To be frank I think all of them could enter their IGCSE exam this year and pass!”
Interested in getting involved?
We would love to make next year’s Top of the Bench even better by reaching more students in different regions. If you are already a regional heat organiser and would like extra help with running your heat or would like contact details for schools or if you’re interested in setting up a new regional heat, get in touch with us. In addition, our updated guide to running a regional heat will be available before the start of the schools’ autumn term.