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Finding solutions and soaking up the atmosphere at water-themed national chemistry competition final

Four QE scientists headed to Scotland for the national final of a Royal Society of Chemistry competition.

After successfully battling through the regional heats of the long-running Top of the Bench competition, the team took on competitors from around the country at Edinburgh Napier University.

The weekend included not only the competition rounds themselves – a written test and a laboratory-based practical – but also a lecture, a prizegiving ceremony and an address from the RSC President, Professor Gill Reid.

QE’s Head of Chemistry Amy Irvine said: “Our students worked brilliantly together as a team and impressed with their fantastic chemistry knowledge and skills.

“It was a closely fought competition with little to separate the teams, and although they were not named among the eventual winners, getting to the final was itself a huge achievement.

“Moreover, they had a great time sampling university life in the labs and lecture theatres.”

The team comprised Year 11’s Zayn Phoplankar; Vu-lam Le-Nguyen, of Year 10; and Aarush Choudhary and Rishan Virmani, both of Year 9.

They reached the national final after scoring 66 points out of a maximum possible 72 in the Chilterns and Middlesex round of the competition during the autumn.

The four travelled by train to the national final. After the four-and-a-half journey from King’s Cross to the Scottish capital on the East Coast Main Line, they spent Friday evening exploring and relaxing prior to the start of the competition the next day.

“They were excited to see the beautiful Edinburgh old town,” said Dr Irvine. “They then headed back to the hotel, just off the Royal Mile, after a much-needed Nando’s!”

Water was the theme of this year’s Top of the Bench – a competition open to all UK secondary schools that has been running for more than 20 years.

On the Saturday morning, the students completed a written paper with questions that covered areas ranging from separating techniques to neutralisation.

The afternoon brought a team practical assessment. “They had a chance to show their separating technique and have a go at a redox titration – normally an A-level topic!” Dr Irvine added.

The keynote lecture on Chemical engineering to produce clean drinking water came before the competitors heard from Professor Reid.



Science department trialling new education app developed by QE alumni that harnesses the power of AI

Two Old Elizabethan medics are working with the School to trial an innovative education app that uses AI to support both pupils and their teachers.

QE contemporaries Kavi Samra and Paul Jung (both 2008–2015) have developed Medly AI to help pupils from backgrounds like theirs who may not have access to all the educational resources available to others.

They only started working on the business in August, yet already it has won funding and been accepted into Microsoft’s start-up programme.

Headmaster Neil Enright said: “We are very pleased to be working with Kavi and Paul as they develop this exciting venture that is showing great potential to support our boys, and other young people, with their consolidation and revision.”

After approaching the School about trialling the app with QE pupils, the pair had a meeting with the Headmaster and with Gillian Ridge and Amy Irvine, Heads of Biology and Chemistry respectively, in which they demonstrated the platform and introduced its teacher mode. “This is where teachers are able to set questions (from a large database, or their own custom questions) to their respective classes for homework, or in a test format,” said Kavi.

Medley AI can then:

  • Understand the questions
  • Work out how they fit into the curriculum of the subject
  • Assign them to a specification point
  • Mark the students’ answers.

“From here, the teacher can get in-depth statistical insights into each student’s weak topics, topic by topic and class by class. This then enables them to customise their classroom teaching according to class-wide weak topics and, of course, saves an incredible amount of time in terms of marking student work.

“Both Dr Irvine and Dr Ridge seemed quite impressed and were eager to start using Medly as a resource to save time and understand where their students don’t perform well.”

‘Onboarding’ for the Year 11 group took place before Christmas, and Paul and Kavi will now be working with the Science department. “This will involve teachers setting homework on the platform and providing feedback on what they’d like to see in our teacher mode to help us improve the platform,” said Kavi. “The students will, of course, have access to our base platform, too, in case they wish to do additional learning or practise questions or exams.”

“We’ve always wanted to try to democratise education,” says Kavi. “Medly AI was born from the vision of making quality education accessible and personalised through the power of AI. Both Paul and I noticed throughout our education how people often had advantages from their socio-economic background in terms of educational resources (e.g personal tuition): both of us come from backgrounds that didn’t allow us access to these resources.

“Recognising the gaps in traditional educational systems due to work pressures on teachers and staffing issues, we saw the potential of AI to fill these gaps and therefore conceptualised a platform that could act as a personal tutor, examiner, and classroom assistant, all integrated into one user-friendly interface.”

Paul is responsible for writing code and working on the technical side of the project, while Kavi takes on operations.

After just two months of development, Microsoft admitted Medly AI to its programme, providing Kavi and Paul with mentoring from a business development manager and meeting the costs of the platform up to £150,000. A month later, the project was also accepted into UCL’s Hatchery start-up accelerator, enabling its professional fees for legal, IP and accounting costs to be funded.

Both Paul and Kavi have deep connections with UCL. Paul holds a PhD in Neuropsychiatry from the university, and has an extensive background in coding and teaching. He included AI in his research, on which he has published and given international presentations. He has returned to his medical degree at UCL and is in his final year, completing his MBBS in August.

Kavi, who currently works as a doctor in anaesthetics, completed his medical degree at UCL in 2021 and is a clinical teacher within its medical school: his approaches to using teaching theory in a digital age earned him an Associate Fellowship of Higher Education Award from UCL and he is also one of the youngest recipients of an honorary fellow contract at UCL.


Look of success! QE boys’ eyes on national finals following victory in regional round of prestigious Chemistry competition

A QE team will go to the national finals of a Royal Society of Chemistry competition after beating off fierce competition to win their regional heat.

Team 38 (pictured top) scored 66 out of a maximum possible 72 – or 92% – to take first place ahead of St Benedict’s School, on 65 points, in the Chilterns and Middlesex round of the Top of the Bench competition.

In joint third place, with 64 points apiece, were three other QE teams and a team from Harrow School.

Head of Chemistry Amy Irvine said: “We are very proud of the four boys in the winning team – what an achievement!”

Describing team 38’s score as “magnificent”, Paul Tiley, from the RSC’s Chilterns and Middlesex Local Section Committee, added: “We were very impressed with their knowledge and understanding of Chemistry.”

The winning team comprised: Zayn Phoplankar, of Year 11; Vu-Lam Le-Nguyen, of Year 10; Aarush Choudhary, of Year 9, and Rishan Virmani, also of Year 9.

In addition to progressing to the national round of the competition in the spring, they win a silver shield and Amazon vouchers.

They were among a total of five teams entered by QE, all made up of boys from Years 9–11. All five finished among the top ten teams. “Their teamwork was exceptional, as they answered some very challenging Chemistry problems via Zoom,” said Dr Irvine.

The Top of the Bench competition is open to all secondary schools in the UK and has been running for more than 20 years.

Boys towards the bottom end of the School have been solving Chemistry problems of their own in the Year 7–9 Chemystery club (photos 2 & 3).

With a little help from sixth-formers, they determined the citric acid concentration in sour sweets – specifically, Swizzles Fizzers and Haribo Sour Sparks.

“The students solved this particular ‘mystery’ very well, with some excellent titration technique on display from the younger boys, supported by our brilliant Year 12 chemists,” Dr Irvine added.

Go-ahead for refurbishment of Chemistry laboratories following £100,000 grant

QE is to completely refurbish two Chemistry laboratories, following confirmation that it has been awarded a £100,000 award from research and education charity, the Wolfson Foundation.

The work will not only provide new equipment and fittings for the busy laboratories in the large 1970s Fern Building, but will also increase their capacity.

The Wolfson Foundation grant will be supplemented by a contribution from The Friends of Queen Elizabeth’s charity.

Headmaster Neil Enright said: “Sciences are tremendously strong at QE at all levels and we already have huge numbers studying Chemistry at A-level, many of them going on to highly regarded courses at university, such as Medicine. This award will enable us to provide them with the best, modern facilities.

“We are very grateful both to the Wolfson Foundation and to our parents, alumni and friends who give through FQE.

“We plan to carry out the work in the summer holidays this year, along with both the next phase of improvements in the Fern Building and, hopefully, the start of work on The Robert Dudley Studio – the new drama and spoken-word facility to be created within our Main Building.”

Paul Ramsbottom, chief executive of the Wolfson Foundation, said: “We are very pleased to support Queen Elizabeth’s School, enabling them to create outstanding facilities for their students.

“We hope the new Chemistry laboratories will encourage and inspire students at all levels to study Science.”

The bid to improve the two laboratories, S9 and S10, was submitted to the Wolfson Foundation last summer. The School is working with experts in the field of school laboratory installations.

Floors, ceilings, services, teachers’ stations, student workbenches and tools and fixtures will all be replaced, with new wiring and feeds for IT and utilities also included within the scope of the project.

QE’s Head of Chemistry, Amy Irvine, today spoke of her delight that the work is to go ahead.

“The facilities in those laboratories are no longer of a standard that best suits teaching practical science lessons, so this is extremely good news. The refurbishment will make it easier for us to deliver the best possible lessons. Boys of all ages here will benefit, while the work will make QE an even more attractive destination as we continue to recruit high-quality staff to the department.”

QE currently has 18 teachers and three laboratory technicians across three Science subjects, with nine of these working in Chemistry.

The Wolfson Foundation is an independent charity with a focus on research and education. Its aim is to support civil society by investing in excellent projects in science, health, heritage, humanities and the arts.

Since it was established in 1955, some £1 billion (£2 billion in real terms) has been awarded to more than 12,000 projects throughout the UK, all on the basis of expert review.

Twitter: @wolfsonfdn

Success in “welcome distraction” of online Cambridge Chemistry Race

A team of Sixth Form scientists were among the front-runners in a prestigious national Chemistry competition run by Cambridge University and a university in the Czech Republic.

QE’s Chem Taj team were ranked fifth out of the 42 teams competing in the Cambridge Chemistry Race, many of them drawn from the country’s leading academic schools.

The five-strong team’s score of 113 points was actually identical to the scores recorded by the teams coming third and fourth, but, in line with the rules, they were given a lower ranking based on the nature of the questions they answered.

Congratulating the Year 13 team, Head of Chemistry Julia Lister said: “The boys adapted very well to the format of the competition, which had to be run entirely online because of the lockdown, keeping their heads under the pressure of competition as they raced to answer as many questions as they could within the two-hour time limit.”

The competition was originally scheduled to take place at the University of Cambridge’s Chemistry Department.

Instead, QE’s team members, Bhargab Ghoshal, Janujan Satchi, Arnav Sharma, James Tan and Khai Tran, worked from their own homes, communicating and completing the race through the Moodle online platform. The event’s opening and closing ceremonies were broadcast on YouTube, while the video-calling platform, Gather Town, was also used.

The boys are pictured, top, at work on a problem, and above right with Dr Lister during the competition.

James said: “Although I was disappointed the competition was not taking place in Cambridge as planned, I still enjoyed it and found it to be a welcome distraction during lockdown. In particular, I liked how the questions built upon our current A-level knowledge, but also required us to research into more advanced topics, such as hemiacetals and macrocycles.”

Khai agreed, saying “it was interesting to apply the Chemistry we’ve learnt to topics beyond our specification”, while Janujan said that by working as a team, they were able to “apply different thought processes to the problem”.

Chemistry Race originated in 2015 as a Czech competition, called Chemiklání, at the University of Pardubice in the city of Pardubice, 96km east of Prague. It proved to be extremely popular among Czech pupils, and the scale of the competition rapidly grew every year.

In 2020, Adam Přáda, one of the organisers of the Czech competition and a Cambridge student, initiated a Cambridge branch of the competition, the Cambridge Chemistry Race.

Once a team answers a question successfully, they are presented with a new one and a live leader-board is updated. Half-an-hour before the ‘race’ ends, the ranking is hidden; the final winners are announced at the closing ceremony.

The questions include easy riddles, tasks of A-level difficulty and more complex chemical problems. Competitors are allowed to use books or notes, since the questions mainly aim to test problem-solving skills and chemical understanding, rather than knowledge.

Questions asked in the competition included:

Q. Imagine that somebody loses 10 kg of fat over three months. 10 kg is quite a significant amount of matter; however, we don’t see pieces of meat falling off people who lose weight. How does the “fat” leave the body? Write down the formulae of the two main substances into which fat is broken down.

A. Carbon dioxide and water. One could figure this out using common sense, by realising that we exhale carbon dioxide all the time and that camels “store” water into fat.

Q. What is the highest possible mass percentage of hydrogen (H) for a neutral hydrocarbon? Give the answer as a percentage.

A. Maximizing the mass percentage of hydrogen can be done in two ways: by complete saturation (thus we consider alkanes) and by minimizing the number of carbon atoms. This is done, because for alkanes (empirical formula CnH2n+2) the addition of one carbon atom and two hydrogen atoms shifts the mass percentages in favour of carbon. We therefore seek the shortest alkane: methane. The mass percentage of hydrogen in methane is then 25.1 %.

And finally, this was identified as one of “this year’s more difficult problems” in the closing ceremony:

Q. How many atoms are there in 1.66×10-24 moles of argon.

A. Just one.

To the curriculum and beyond!

Experts have been helping QE A-level students see the exciting topical applications of their subjects in the real world in a series of lectures streamed into the School.

Sixth-formers have already enjoyed stimulating day-long sessions on Medicine in Action, Chemistry in Action, Product Design in Action and Geography in Action, with a similar event for Biology due to take place in December.

The training days are run by The Training Partnership, the leading provider of external educational study days in the UK, and would normally be held in London, but are this year being conducted remotely because of Covid-19.

QE’s Head of Technology, Michael Noonan, said that the Product Design A-level students, and even a couple of “enthusiastic non-subject specialists”, enjoyed a “superb day” of lectures. “Favourite amongst the talks attended by students was Pioneering aeronautical innovation by Sam Rogers – an aeronautical engineer working in product development for Gravity Industries, a company who are currently developing a jetpack suit.”

One of the pupils attending, Paul Ofordu, of Year 12, said: “It was amazing to see the application of prototyping, testing and iterative design in such a high-end product development project.”

The Resourcefulness and design lecture, delivered by Kingston University Senior Lecturer Pascal Anson, stimulated a practical activity, pictured. “Here we see some examples of structures which were resourcefully developed by the students using VEX IQ and EDR Robotics game elements – great thinking on their feet!” added Mr Noonan.

Chemistry students gathered in the Main School Hall to hear engaging contributions from speakers who ranged from Andrea Sella, a synthetic chemist and broadcaster, talking about mercury – “the most beautiful element in the periodic table and the most reviled” – to marine engineer Hayley Loren exploring whether nuclear fusion could provide the solution to the world’s energy issues.

Julia Lister, QE’s Head of Chemistry, said: “The engaging Chemistry in Action lectures covered an array of topics. Streaming these lectures took students from key concepts to cutting-edge science and future directions across many applications of the subject.”

The Geography lectures were similarly wide-ranging. One talk, entitled Lessons in sustainability: An explorer’s tale, was by Jason Lewis, the first person to circumnavigate the earth without using motors or sails. Another featured academic Martin Evans, from the University of Manchester, speaking on Landscape Systems in the Anthropocene. And Emily Parry, Head of Geography, highlighted lectures on water insecurity and on how COVID-19 has impacted the Pacific Islands.

“The boys enjoyed the talks, which both built up content covered in their A-level course and extended their knowledge on a range of issues facing the planet,” she said.

“Each lecture was followed with a Q&A session in which the boys could send in questions to the lecturer. Often questions focused around what young people themselves could do to help address some of the issues explored such as climate change, river pollution and how we choose a sustainable future.”

Head of Biology Gillian Ridge said that after the forthcoming Biology in Action day, boys who attend will be invited to give a series of lunchtime presentations to the rest of their year based on the talks.

Multi-disciplinary magic helps QE to a top place in international competition

A Year 10 team’s hi-tech lockdown project was placed third in an international competition aimed at stemming the global tide of plastic pollution.

The Prata Neptunia team combined their skills in Technology, Mathematics and Chemistry and also produced a slick video presentation to promote their design for an autonomous hovercraft robot.

Competing against teams from more than 40 countries, Ashwin Sridhar, Anish Rana and Merwan Singh impressed judges from the British International Education Association with their use of artificial intelligence to tackle plastic waste in rivers and canals, reducing its harmful effects on flora and fauna.

A second QE Year 10 team, called Ocean, won the Best Effort prize in their category in the competition, which was launched in January.

Head of Technology Michael Noonan said: “My heartfelt congratulations go to the boys, who began their projects when we were deep in lockdown and thus had to overcome some significant obstacles in putting their entry together. Although narrowly missing out on the grand prize, the team are proud to have had their project acknowledged on an international scale and to have learned countless new skills along the way.”

The BIEA International STEM Innovation Challenge invited young people from the age of nine to 21 to research, write a report and design a solution to Save our shores from plastic waste through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). In its brief, the BIEA pointed out that one lorryload of plastic is dumped every minute worldwide – the annual equivalent in weight of 40,000 blue whales or 1.6 million elephants. The competition drew entries from schools in countries including China, the United States, Argentina, Norway and Indonesia.

Ashwin took on the role of Project Manager and Lead Scientist for Prata Neptunia, while Merwan was Lead Researcher and Anish the Lead Robotics Designer.

By using hovercraft technology informed by artificial intelligence, the trio were able to devise a design that could travel across multiple terrains, both land and water, and target different types of plastic. These notably included microplastics, which have become a huge problem worldwide because of their devastating effects on marine life.

The team learned project-management skills in order to optimise their time effectively, from the use of Gantt charts to task delegation. They designed prototypes at home, building and testing parts, and investigating processes to remove microplastics in order to determine the feasibility of their design.

As part of the overall design process, they applied skills acquired in Technology lessons before finally designing their solution on CAD software.

Their work led to an invitation from BIEA to participate in the virtual international finals, where they were awarded their third place in the 15-17 category.

Anish said: “We started our journey back in March and were quite behind, compared to other teams, which started earlier. However, through thoughtful planning and hard work, we were able to pull together to create a product we were proud of in time for the due date.”

Unable to meet up freely or access all the resources of The Queen’s Library, the boys worked from home and used technology including Zoom calls to co-ordinate their work.

“We all saw plastic pollution as a big problem all over the world: the BIEA competition has targeted a global crisis that needs fixing.”

The competition gave him and his teammates the opportunity to deploy their skills and knowledge to tackle this crisis, which, he said, has shown him “how we can all work together to solve it”.

Anish added: “Of course, we had our ups and downs, but overall the competition was a great experience with a satisfying conclusion.”

The trio’s project required some fairly advanced Science, as they investigated methods of removing plastics, which led to their inclusion of PETase, an enzyme which catalyses the hydrolysis of Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) to monomeric mono-2-hydroxyethyl terephthalate (MHET). MHET is then broken down into Ethylene glycol and Terephthalic acid (Benzene-1,4-dicarboxylic acid) using the enzyme MHETase.  The team also delved into fluid dynamics – encompassing Mathematics and Physics – to optimise their design’s motion and efficiency.

The Ocean team, Jashwanth Parimi, Utkarsh Bhamidimarri and Siddarth Jana, also started their project relatively late and had only about a month to complete it.

Jashwanth said: “During multiple Zoom calls, we learned much more about plastic pollution and, eventually, we designed an idea that we thought was suitable for solving the problem. Then we each split into our specialised areas to fulfill the requirements of the project, but we still all helped each other in each of our project areas until we finally finished.”

The team designed a multi-terrain vehicle that used a net in order to collect macro-plastics on both the ocean and the mudflats. “Our project was innovative since we tried to consider all the wildlife on all the terrains, such as fish and snails, and so on.”

Oxbridge pair get gold in Chemistry Olympiad

All QE entrants to the Royal Society of Chemistry UK Olympiad were awarded medals after successfully completing the first round of this testing and highly-regarded competition.

Last year’s School Captain, Bhiramah Rammanohar, and his fellow Year 13 pupil, Alejandro Lynch Gonzalez (pictured centre above), both secured gold. This put the Oxbridge-bound pair, who have offers to study at Jesus College, Cambridge, and Magdalen College, Oxford, respectively, in the top 8 per cent of the nearly 3,000 candidates who competed in the élite event, now in its 52nd year.

Chemistry teacher Charani Dharmawardhane said: “All the boys should be proud of their achievement: the competition consists of challenging questions that stretch pupils beyond the A-level specification.”

QE’s eight other participants – Fozy Ahmed, Manas Madan, Tai Oyama  and Sathujan Manmatharajah, pictured above, as well as Abilash Sivathasan, Dhru Patel, Pratham Upadhyay and Rushil Shah – all won either silver or bronze medals. All are from Year 13.

“Nearly a third of the contestants in the RSC Chemistry Olympiad did not receive any award at all, so our boys have done exceptionally well,” Miss Dharmawardhane added.

The RSC describes the competition as “a unique opportunity for students to push themselves further and excel in the chemistry field”. It adds that the olympiad helps develop critical problem-solving skills and creativity, while giving entrants the “chance to test their knowledge in new, real-world situations”.

Usually the first round is followed by a residential weekend for the top performers, with a national team selected from that for an international olympiad competition, but these stages have been cancelled this year.

Poster on the pros and cons of plastics takes top prize in Chemistry competition

Year 8 pupil Maxwell Johnson’s colourful and carefully researched poster about plastics won first prize in a Royal Society of Chemistry regional competition.

Entrants in the under-13 competition run by the RSC’s Chilterns and Middlesex Division were challenged to prepare a poster under the heading of The Chemistry Around Us.

Maxwell’s multi-coloured entry spelled out his title using letters from the Periodic Table and then set out the advantages of plastics – a ‘wonder substance’ – while contrasting these with the problems this ‘material mess’ causes.

He received a certificate signed by RSC divisional committee member Vanessa Nottage, together with £25-worth of Amazon vouchers.

QE Chemistry teacher and Extra-curricular Enrichment Tutor Keith Bugler said: “Many congratulations to Maxwell on the research and care he put into his entry: I thought his poster was awesome!”

Among the positive attributes of plastics that Maxwell listed were its light weight, durability and versatility, Dr Bugler said. However, Maxwell pointed out the problems caused in the oceans when UV rays make plastics crumble into microplastics less than 5mm long. These endanger many sea animals, including birds and whales, and also enter the human food chain, causing health problems such as hormonal dysfunction and cancers.

QE’s top chemists strike gold and silver in Olympiad

A dozen final-year QE boys won medals in the 51st Chemistry Olympiad, with one, Kiran Aberdeen, selected to go through to the élite competition’s second round, hosted by Cambridge University.

In the first round of the Royal Society of Chemistry competition, five QE pupils were awarded gold medals, which went to just 8% of the 7,036 entrants nationwide. A further seven took silver, which went to 25% of participants across the country.

Chemistry teacher Elizabeth Kuo said: “The Olympiad is the UK’s leading secondary school-age competition in our subject and is designed to stretch even the brightest, so all our medal-winners did very well.

“To reach round 2, as Kiran did, represents an exceptional performance, because only the top 30 highest-scoring students nationally are invited to take part. So, although in the end he missed out on selection for the final four representing the UK at the International Chemistry Olympiad, he nevertheless deserves to be heartily congratulated on his achievement.” Kiran is pictured in the front row, centre.

Run annually, the Olympiad aims to develop creative thinking, and help pupils apply their existing knowledge in new and interesting contexts.

Round 1 involves a written test of chemical knowledge, based on real-world chemistry problems, and is sat in school.

The second round at Cambridge is held over a long weekend and features lessons and demonstrations on new topics from respected academics, teachers and technicians, followed by theoretical and practical tests.

  • The gold medal-winners were: Kiran Aberdeen; Kishan Patel; Binu Perera; Essam Rama, and Tharunkumar Muthu Gurunath. Silver medals went to: Bashmy Basheer; Aashish Khimasia; Shiva Pingle; Varun Wignarajah; Tharshan Sriskantha; Rawan Ebrahim, and Mukund Murali. All medal-winners were from Year 13.