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Stepping up to the Challenge

Minooka eighth-grader paces area entrants in chemistry challenge

Conrad Goffinett, left, an eighth-grader at Minooka Junior High School, was the top finisher among Illinois Valley region participants from Grundy and La Salle counties in the state competition of the “You Be the Chemist Challenge.
Conrad Goffinett, left, an eighth-grader at Minooka Junior High School, was the top finisher among Illinois Valley region participants from Grundy and La Salle counties in the state competition of the “You Be the Chemist Challenge.

Six local middle school winners, two alternates, and their families took off for DesPlaines on April 3 to compete against the winners from six other regional sites in Illinois — a total of 87 schools from eight sites —  in the state competition of the “You Be the Chemist Challenge.”

Last year, the state contest ended with two siblings, a sister and a brother, battling it out to the finish, with the sister winning. This year, her younger brother won.

Bhagirath Mehta from Iroquois Community School in DesPlaines will now advance to the national competition at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on June 25, followed by a Celebration Dinner at the National Constitution Center.  

The students who advanced to the state level from the local Illinois Valley area were great representatives for Grundy and La Salle counties. Conrad Goffinet (8th) of Minooka Junior High did the best out of the Illinois Valley group after answering 49 questions correctly and standing his ground until just before the final round, which left the last four standing.

This was Conrad’s second year in the competition, although last year he competed in the play-in round only.

“Being in the You Be the Chemist Challenge was a great experience,” he said. “I know much more about chemistry now than I did when I first started studying for the competition. It was well worth the effort — and I won some cool prizes!”

Conrad was not the only one from this area who had competed in this contest before. Aaron Kamke of Waltham Elementary in Utica came in as a sixth-grader and has now competed the most years of any student in the Illinois Valley group.

“In the past three years I competed in You Be the Chemist, I have learned so much about chemistry and science in general,” Aaron said. “But even more, this contest pushed me to work hard toward a goal and to improve my study skills. It also confirmed my desire to pursue a career in a STEM field. I am very glad I was a part of it.”

Other state contestants who persevered to the end were Arun Arjunakani from Mead Jr. High School in Elk Grove, who took second place and became the alternate for Bhagirath Mehta should he not be able to compete at the national competition; Barathkumar Baskaran of Einsenhower Junior High in Hoffman Estates; and Jason Yang of Wilmette Junior High School. 

The students were bombarded with questions read by Professor Mike Davis of the Chicago City Colleges. He is also the all-amazing science guy who has his own television show, “City Science.”

After reading the specified number of questions for each round, he performed science demonstrations while the contestants nervously awaited the results from each round. Some favorites are burning dollar bills and making little explosions.

The question sets at every level of this contest are compiled by a team of scientists coordinated by the national organizers, the Chemical Educational Foundation of Arlington, Va. 

The other Grundy County students, Jared Roth (7th grade) of Saratoga School in Morris, Nick Micetich (8th grade) of Coal City Middle School, and those from La Salle County – Lyle Marshall (8th) and Grant Granby (7th) of Seneca Grade School, Aaron Kamke (8th) of Waltham Elementary in Utica, and Jakob Selquist (8th) of Parkside Junior High in Peru, all gave their best and had to fight some very hard competition.

Joey Rivera (8th) of Coal City Middle School, who was an alternate from the regional competition, did not compete because he was involved in the state wrestling championship at the time.

The Illinois Valley site participants (as they were originally called) are jokingly referred to as the “downstaters” because the other regional sites are all farther north (Chicago, North Cook, Schaumburg, DesPlaines, Orland-Palos, and Kane County). The national contest switched to sites having county boundaries, so Grundy and La Salle split into two county sites and doubled their chances of winning. The Illinois Valley site was the pilot group for this national contest now in its eighth year.

As a special treat before the competition, several of the Illinois Valley group (contestants and families) got an extra dose of science while they toured the UOP/Honeywell Research Center plant site in DesPlaines. There they visited the advanced characterization lab (including scanning and transmission electron microscopes), the engine lab, and the pilot plant building, among other areas.

UOP, LLC, formerly known as Universal Oil Products, is a multi-national company developing and delivering technology to the petroleum refining, gas processing, petrochemical production, and major manufac-turing industries.

Prizes and sponsorship of the state contest were provided by the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois and Marbles the Brain Store. The winner of the state competition won The CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, which is sometimes nicknamed the ‘Rubber Bible’ or the ‘Rubber Book’, as CRC originally stood for “Chemical Rubber Company.” As late as the 1962-1963 edition (3,604 pages), the Handbook contained myriad information for every branch of science and engineering.

All participants won $25 gift cards, and the top three finishers received prize packages (an assortment of puzzles & games) from Marbles the Brain Store. 

Patricia Neff, regional coordinator of the Illinois Valley group, also acted as stage proctor during the competition this year and said it was hard work. On the bus ride home, she asked Jakob Selquist and Grant Granby for their comments about the contest and Jakob said, “I did what I do, so if it wasn’t good enough for nationals, that’s OK. I had fun.”  Grant remarked, “It’s hard if you don’t study!”

The local school level of the contest and involvement at the state level for the Illinois Valley group would be lost without the continued support of companies who promote science education. Those local sponsors are Air Products and Chemicals, Aux Sable Liquid, AkzoNobel, Carus Corporation, Exelon-Dresden Station, Flint Hills Resources-Peru, LyondellBasell and PQ Corporation.

In addition to sponsorship funds, several companies (Aux Sable Liquid, AkzoNobel, Exelon and Flint Hills Resources) gave token gifts to the regional participants as well.

For more information about this fun and educational contest, contact regional coordinator Patricia Neff of Morris at (815) 634-2370, or visit the Chemical Educational Foundation’s website,, where you will find pictures and details about this contest as well as activities and information for teachers and students.

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