Esther Hines is a high school chemistry teacher at Billerica Memorial High School. For the past three years, Esther has volunteered as a high school mentor for the United States National Chemistry Olympiad Team (USNCO team). Esther has been invited to continue for a fourth year to mentor the US team for the 2023 International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO) competition.
In this Member Volunteer Spotlight, learn more how Esther became involved in volunteering as part of the Chemistry Olympiad, opportunities for mentorship, and advice to others interested in volunteering with the Chemistry Olympiad.
How did you become involved in this volunteer opportunity?
I found out about this wonderful opportunity through the ACS website back in 2010. At the time, the three-year commitment required, was not feasible for me due to family obligations I had at that time. The interest in this opportunity came back again in 2018 as I was coaching a group of students at my high school participating in the chemistry Olympiad competition at the local level. I sent my application and was called for an interview the summer of 2019. My interview took place at Scranton PA and my interviewer was a member of the mentor selection committee, and former USNCO mentor . I found out I was selected in December of the same year and began working with the team of mentors starting in January 2020. The US Team is coached by three mentors, two are college professors, and one is a high school teacher.
For this volunteer opportunity, did you have a mentor and/or do you serve as a mentor to others participants in this program?
My first year I was learning from my colleague mentors. I helped with developing college level questions I was most comfortable with, in this case, Analytical chemistry; my colleagues worked on the organic chemistry questions which is the subject they taught and two professors from the hosting university for the stud camp, contributed inorganic and physical chemistry questions. These questions were used to create 3-4 exams that helped select the team that was going to represent the United States at the International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO for short). The first year the study camp and IChO competition were held via zoom. The IChO competition was hosted by Turkey and due to the circumstances the lab portion of the competition did not take place.
Our job as mentors during the IChO portion was to revise the exam prior to the students taking it. After the exam was taken, we were to go over our students answers and markings to make sure they were fair. The best part was waiting for the final results together as a team, mentors and students. The US team took four gold medals in 2020!
My second year, the study camp portion was held via zoom, the IChO portion took place in Washington D.C., as per request of the hosting nation Japan. They requested to have all the students in a national team take the exam in one location. This time the mentors worked in person during the IChO portion of the exam. The most challenging aspect of IChO 2021 was keeping up with the time zones! Japan did an excellent job with the logistics on this. Our team achievement was outstanding with two gold and two silver medals.
This year the study camp was in person. It took place at the University of Maryland main campus. We stayed at a fraternity house for the duration of the camp. The IChO was hosted by China, and we again traveled to Washington D.C. for it.
I got the full experience of being a mentor for the USNCO during camp. The study camp included the lab portion, lecture, problem solving, and social times with the 20 high school students who qualified for the camp. We worked long hours, there were lots of lab preparation, lots of time developing new questions for the exams, lots of grading and finally the task of selecting the final 4 students who were going to represent the US at the IChO competition. All of these in 21 days!
What has been the most rewarding / exciting component of this volunteer opportunity?
The most exciting for me was to have the opportunity to meet such selected group of students who love chemistry so much! Even though they were still teenagers their knowledge of chemistry could easily be compared to a fourth-year undergraduate chemistry major. It was great to have very good problem-solving sessions with them, watch them get along with one another and help each other in getting ready for the exams and lab activities. It was a treat. Another rewarding experience for me was to learn how to create new questions/problems from research articles and come up with others based on topics proposed in the review for the international competition. My co-mentors were great in guiding me through all of this. Lastly the preparation and testing of the lab experiments for the students was also a very good exposure to high level labs. I got to learn lots of organic chemistry experiments that I can now try in my own organic chemistry course at my high school, albeit subject to equipment and reagents availability!
What advice would you give to other individuals considering this volunteer opportunity?
If you decide to apply, take in consideration that you will join a really great team of educators of chemistry that will provide you with guidance and allow you to do your best, be prepared to be creative in your problem design, be ready to meet an incredible group of students who love chemistry and enjoy learning about it, be prepared to help them get ready for the competition, not only with problem solving guidance but also to navigate the social and emotional aspects of any competition.
Lastly, it is important to have the support of your family at home, and of your high school administration, because you will be away from home and your school for 2-3 weeks, from mid-May to beginning of June, and then again in July.
It has been a great experience so far for me and I am looking forward to do it again. The next IChO 2023 competition will be held in Zurich, Switzerland, hopefully in person! Let’s go Team USA!