Op-Ed: USA Biology Olympiad provides recognition to students excelling in STEM disciplines

June 12, 2014  

Steven R. Abel

Steven R. Abel 
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By Steven Abel

Critics of the U.S. education system have long had evidence to back their claims that our academia is not up to snuff. Indeed, there is a slump in our students' test scores as a whole in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics when compared with those of other countries. Perhaps more concerning, however, is the steadily declining trend in the level of U.S. student interest in related career fields.

With fewer students forging career paths in the STEM disciplines, the problem is not that the United States won't have excellent graduates who might create the next iPhone, cure cancer or end world hunger. The problem is that we won't have the depth of talent to advance in the STEM fields we are leading today.

But as U.S. students' success on international platforms such as the USA Biology Olympiad (USABO) shows, the situation is certainly not hopeless.

For five years, Purdue has hosted the USABO in partnership with the Center for Excellence in Education (CEE). Each June, 20 bright young students (selected from 10,000 students based on test scores from the USABO Open and Semifinal Exams) compete to represent the U.S. at the International Biology Olympiad.

During these two weeks, competitors study under the direction of U.S. biologists who are experts in the fields of cellular and microbiology; plant anatomy and physiology; animal anatomy and physiology; ethology, genetics and evolution; and ecology, ethology and biosystematics.

Four students of the 20 are chosen based on scores from two exams taken at the end of the two weeks: a practical exam and a theoretical exam. The four highest-scoring students form Team USA, advancing to the IBO, where they are evaluated on their theoretical knowledge of the biological sciences and their practical lab skills. The IBO, a worldwide competition involving students from 63 countries, is July 6-13 in Bali, Indonesia.

Last year, Team USA won the IBO with the highest amount of overall points, earning the title of No. 1 in the world. The team, consisting of Charles Gleason of Hackensack, N.J.; Nikhil Buduma of San Jose, Calif.; Lei Ding of Wilmington, Del.; and Catharine Wu of San Diego, Calif.; took home four gold medals, and boasted the No. 1 and No. 2 scorers in the world, Gleason and Ding, respectively.

This year, for the first time since Purdue began hosting the USABO, Indiana is represented: Boyang Dun of Canterbury School in Fort Wayne earned the chance to compete this summer at Purdue.

The key question is: Are these 20 students excelling because of the respective approaches to education their schools may be taking? The answers probably vary. And while this may be true for many of the private schools, the public schools represented among these talented students must be doing something right, too.

The U.S. is waking up to the implications of our STEM crisis as education reforms sweep across our classrooms. Purdue is committed to transforming higher education and the STEM disciplines. And the USABO is providing these receptive students with the experience needed to thrive in their fields, as well as the recognition to validate their hard work and talent.

By sponsoring and focusing attention on programs such as the Biology Olympiad, universities in collaboration with organizations such as the CEE can play a vital role in generating interest in and recognition for the number of students in STEM-related career fields.

The situation at hand is critical as we strive to retain our leadership in this global landscape. The U.S. doesn't like to come in second. That’s why we don't put silver medalists on Wheaties boxes.

— Steven R. Abel is associate vice president for engagement and the Bucke Professor of Pharmacy Practice at Purdue University.

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