Analytical Division South East Region - IYC Challenge

Chemical Pentathlon

In 2012 an outreach activity entitled the ‘Chemical Pentathlon’ was developed by Dr John Baum in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Reading. The event was designed to engage young people in chemistry by capitalising on the huge interest in sport generated by the Olympics.

A student volunteer (year 12) and ten (year 10) students from eight local schools were involved with finalising the five different activities. The year 10 students were participating in a week long work placement scheme operated by the Central Berkshire Education Business Partnership.

The activities were designed to be carried out by teams of year 9 pupils (four per team) from local schools participating in the ‘Chemical Pentathlon’ event sponsored via the South East Region Analytical Division (SERAD). This year group was chosen as at this stage the students have yet to make their choice of GCSE subjects.

The event, co-ordinated by Dr David Nutt, was held on 6 July 2012 in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Reading and thirteen teams from eleven local schools participated. The work placement students were supervised by Dr John Baum; they practised the activities, designed the worksheets and took photographs.


Four activities involving well known demonstration reactions were based in the laboratory; the fifth activity involved launching a water rocket and was based outside. 

  1. Get a Gold Medal the Easy Way!!!
    A ‘copper’ coin (such as a 2p piece) was dipped into a solution of sodium zincate in contact with zinc for 2-3 mins. The coin was plated with zinc and changed colour becoming ‘silver’. The coin was then removed from solution, rinsed with water and heated using a hot air gun. Upon heating, the copper and zinc reacted to form an alloy of brass and the coin again changed colour becoming ‘gold’. The ‘gold’ coins were then transformed into medals by the addition of coloured neck ribbons.

    Get a Gold Medal the Easy Way 

  2. The Olympic Drugs Test
    Thin layer chromatography was used to identify contaminated ‘urine’ samples. A series of 20 analytical samples (5 per team member) were analysed using thin layer chromatography, to determine their Rf values. These values were compared to a tabulated set of Rf values for a variety of ‘drugs’ so that contaminated analytical samples could be identified.

    The Olympic Drugs Test

  3. Can you Equal the 800 m World Record?
    The iodine clock reaction was used as a timer for this event. Potassium iodate and sodium bisulphite were mixed together in the presence of starch indicator. Sodium bisulphite was present at a limiting concentration and the end of the reaction was signalled when the solution changed colour from clear to blue-black. The quantity of potassium iodate was varied in order to control the time of the reaction. The goal was to get as close as possible to David Rodisha’s 2010 800 m world record (1:41.01, or ~101 s).

    Can you Equal the 800m World Record? 

  4. The Longest Snottite
    Polyvinyl alcohol was converted to slime by the addition of 4% borax (hydrated sodium tetraborate) solution which formed crosslinks between the polymer chains. The quantities of reagents were varied in order to control the physical properties of the slime. The goal was to find the optimum ratio of reagents required to form the longest ‘snottite’ from a fixed total volume over a fixed time period.

    The Longest Snottite 

  5. Water Rockets
    A basic rocket and launch pad was designed by each school team and brought along on the day. Specifications were that a small 500 ml plastic bottle was used and that the assembled rocket and launch pad fitted in a 5-ream paper box. The thrust of the rocket was provided by compressed air acting on a small volume of water within the rocket, subsequent expulsion of the water from the rocket projected the rockets forwards and upwards. The goal was to project the rocket the greatest distance.

    Water Rockets

A series of downloadable activity sheets are available to download.


The competition was judged by postgraduate students from within the Department of Chemistry and whilst final deliberations were made the students enjoyed an interactive talk entitled “Drugs in Sport” given by Dr Angela Alexander MBE, a Pharmacist and London2012 “Games Maker”. The competition was won by The Emmbrook School, with Dr Challoner’s Grammar school coming second and Claire’s Court Girls school third. The prizes were awarded by Dr Joanne Elliott (representative from SERAD) and Dr Angela Alexander MBE (guest speaker). 


"The activities were challenging but very do-able and captured their imagination, apparently there has been much discussion around the dinner table about what went on”

“this is definitely an event worth repeating”

“I do hope we can run it next year as our students certainly got a lot out of it

Further Work

The Outreach team at Reading are keen to run the event again next year and SERAD have agreed to provide the necessary financial support. Expansion of the water rocket activity is under consideration, this would allow teachers to develop suitable rockets with their students in the months leading up to the event so that each school then brings their best rocket to the final event.

Downloadable Files

The Olympic Drugs Test - Sample Screening
Instruction Sheet
PDF iconPDF (382k)  

The Olympics Drug Test - Contaminated Samples
Instruction Sheet
PDF iconPDF (573k)  

Can you Equal the 800m World Record?
Instructions and worksheet
PDF iconPDF (523k)  

Information Sheet
PDF iconPDF (639k)  

PDF files require Link icon Adobe Acrobat Reader

Contact and Further Information

Dr Fiona McMillan
Member Networks Team Leader
Royal Society of Chemistry, Thomas Graham House, Science Park, Milton Road, Cambridge CB4 0WF
Tel: + 44 (0) 1223 432269