Story by Jules Robson - Chair of the NZIBO Exec in 2005:
In 2005 New Zealand entered its first-ever team in the International Biology Olympiad (IBO) competitions, held that year in Beijing, China.
This involved a week-long programme of intense scientific competition. Competitors sat six hours of practical laboratory exams on one day, followed by another six hours of theory exams on a second day. As you can imagine, this is an extremely stressful event, and so team selectors must look not only for students with the necessary academic qualifications and skills, but also for those with the personal qualities that allow them to perform under pressure. Not only are the students working in a pressure-cooker environment: two adults from each country travel with their teams – one a theory and one a practical examiner. Before the students sit the exams, the examiners themselves are sequestered for many hours at a time, determining the fairness and validity of each and every question. This sometimes takes until 4am on the day of the exam, after which the team of examiners then meet to review the students’ answers and performance. The accompanying adults are definitely not along for the ride!
Obviously we needed to ensure that the best possible team was chosen to represent New Zealand in the IBO. This is done through the NZ International Biology Olympiad (NZIBO), which in 2004-05 consisted of 3 phases:
1. Over 70 top students, from all over New Zealand, entered a national exam, held during October 2004. The top 30 students had their achievement recognised with bronze medallist certificates.
2. We then ran ten theory tutorials from December 2004 – March 2005. These tutorials were designed to begin to bring the students up to speed with the level of knowledge that would be expected of them in the Olympiad itself. The tutorials were followed in March 2005 by an IBO theory exam. The top 13 students (silver medallists) were determined on the basis of this exam, and went forward to the practical training camp held in Auckland and Hamilton in April 2005. Our sincere thanks to the Allan Wilson Centre and Waikato University, as well as Massey University, UNITEC and Kings College, for hosting and funding the event.
3. At the practical camp the students learned a wide range of laboratory techniques and practical skills, in preparation for the practical exams. They were assessed on their ability as well as how they performed under pressure. The final New Zealand International Biology Olympiad team (Gold medallists), selected at the end of this camp, were Eric Liu, Cameron Cole, Chinthaka Samaranayake and Kate Duggan. They travelled to Beijing with 2 teachers (Max Thompson and Angela Sharples), who represented New Zealand on the IBO examination jury panel.
Angela’s diary of the trip makes it clear that both students and examiners were under huge pressure to perform – but they also found time for water fights, shopping trips, and a tour of the Great Wall. Not only was the trip a wonderful experience for all concerned but – on our first attempt in this highly competitive international event – the team brought home two bronze medals! Congratulations to Cameron and Eric on this achievement, and to Chintaka and Kate, who missed out on the medal placings by just a single mark. China was the top-ranked country overall, with NZ in the middle of the International ranking. This is a great result for a first attempt, especially when you consider that we only had a few months to prepare our students! We’ve learned a great deal from the experiences of the team, and from Angela and Max in their capacity as examiners, and this will all go towards improving and enhancing our preparations for the 2006 event.
Results of the 2005 competition can be found here.