The agony and the ecstasy*: Avogadro and Chem 13 News Exams

Michael P JansenChemistry students around the world have written the Avogadro and Chem 13 News Exams, prepared by the late Dr. Carey Bissonnette for many years. These papers have challenged the best and the brightest with questions ranging from straightforward to do-able to . . . ahem . . . challenging. I’m gonna be honest here, some of the questions give me a run for my money . . . that’s all I’m gonna say.

Why do these exams include difficult, sometimes obscure questions? Why do they penalize a quarter-of-a-point for an incorrect response? 

The answer is simple — Carey didn’t want 500 students to get perfect. 

A score of, say, 25 correct answers out of 40, is, in my mind, pretty respectable, putting one in approximately the 80th percentile.

My personal high point with the Avogadro Exam came in the early/mid-90s, when Crescent School placed first in consecutive years. The writers were brothers Gabriel Chan and then Joseph Chan. They were top-notch students with a work ethic that rivalled Michelangelo’s dedication to the Sistine Chapel. They studied past papers; they asked questions that made me earn my salary.

The Avogadro and Chem 13 News Exams give students from around the world a chance to show their chemistry-chops against the best-of-the-best, with a gladiatorial level, no-holds-barred contest that pretty much guarantees only one victor.

I met Carey at a Science Teachers’ Association of Ontario conference a bunch of years ago. I was with Jean Hein, the then-editor of this beautiful magazine. I can’t remember what was under discussion; Carey had recently returned from China, on Chemistry Department business. After listening to him talk, I understood the source of those excellent questions.

With Carey’s passing comes the opportunity for someone new to assume the test-writing mantle. He or she will have a tough act to follow — to prepare questions that walk a fine line between uber-challenging and impossible. And here’s the kicker: the questions that are posed are subject to editorial review by hundreds (thousands?) of Chemistry teachers — a tough bunch of customers.

Dr. Carey Bissonnette worked on the University of Waterloo’s Avogadro and Chem 13 News Exams for 20 years — from 2000-2008, with three colleagues in the Chemistry Department, in succession, and then on his own from 2009 through 2019. In this, and through his writing for Chem 13 News, Carey leaves a considerable legacy as a Chemistry Educator.

We are in his debt.


*Apologies to Irving Stone.