Students from across Tennessee compete in ‘You Be the Chemist Challenge’

Photo and Story by Caleb Revill / Contributing Writer

Young chemists from all over Tennessee competed at this year’s “You Be the Chemist Challenge” hosted by MTSU on Saturday.

The You Be the Chemist Challenge is organized by the Chemical Educational Foundation nonprofit. The event has been held annually for three years now.

Participants ranged from fifth to eighth-grade students. Twenty-five students attended this year from schools in both Knoxville and Memphis.

The challenge was held in the KUC Theatre. In order to attend the state level challenge, students must first complete a local challenge hosted by their own school. A company normally sponsors the state level challenge. This year’s sponsors included DOW Chemical, IDEAL Chemical, MTSU and the Pink Palace Family of Museums. The student who wins the state challenge then proceeds to a national challenge hosted in Washington D.C. There, they would have the opportunity to win up to $10,000 for achieving first place.

Kevin Benner, a DOW Chemical employee and MTSU alumnus, oversaw this year’s state challenge. He presented the questions to students.

“My favorite part about this competition is to see the students enjoying chemistry and learning chemistry,” Benner said.

Benner said that he wanted to grow the program and incorporate more schools.

Students were given standardized periodic tables, notepads, pens and electronic response devices to answer the questions displayed via projector.

The challenge consisted of chemistry related problems for students to solve. Students were given roughly 10 seconds to answer individual questions. The event consisted of three preliminary rounds, two intermediate rounds, a semi-final round and a championship round. Each round had progressively more difficult questions.

After a total of 34 questions, the preliminary rounds were over, and the 15 students with the highest scores would continue to the intermediate rounds.

During the intermediate rounds, students were asked a total of 16 questions. Afterward, four students remained for the semifinal round. The semifinal round was structured differently. Students were given answer cards to raise instead of answering electronically. Judges would sit behind the students and record their answers.

Two competitors remained after the semifinal round ended. They were asked five questions for the championship round.

Tension could be felt in the silent theater as parents and students watched the two finalists raise their answer cards. After the questions were asked, the judges tallied up the scores.

After a brief silence, Benner announced this year’s state champion. Competitor Sean Grace had won with a narrow one point lead over his fellow finalist.

Sean Grace has won the last two years’ state challenges. He won fourth place at last year’s national challenge. Since he is in eighth grade, this will be his final year to participate in the national challenge.

Grace said that he really enjoyed the suspense of participating in the challenge.

“This challenge specifically got me into chemistry when I won two years ago, by surprise. I’m already taking the AP chemistry exam Monday, and I believe it’s going to vault me into a higher career,” Grace said.

Awards were given to participants at the end of the competition. First through fourth place winners were awarded plaques and gift cards.

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To contact News Editor Brinley Hineman, email

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