The very first Swiss team who participated in an International Science Olympiad came from the Romandy. Indeed, you have read this correctly. Everything started in Pully in Juli 1986. In this article, we tell you how an experience from the west of Switzerland developed into a program across the whole country.
Just before the end of the cold war, the Romand Maurice Cosandey was correcting chemistry exams in Budapest – together with fellow teachers from all across Europe.
“I am a fan of associations”, Maurice Cosandey tells us at the beginning of our interview. The 84 year old Romand selected the first Swiss delegation to the International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO) in 1987. At that time, he was a teacher at the high school Chamblandes. Since then, he is committed to education and the Science Olympiads. Maurice radiates this enthusiasm: He happily shares his experiences: “Before I talk about the Romandy, we need to have a look the historic context, to set the scene back then.”
1968 : Cold War and Liberalization
It started in 1968. The Czechoslovak politician Alexander Dubcek was leading the “Socialism with a human face”; changes, such as freedom of press and freedom of speech were being introduced. However, this movement aiming to liberating Czechoslovakia from Soviet influences was disrupted when Russian troops invaded the country. The desire for liberalization had to find a new outlet. “Just at that time, a group of chemistry teachers had an idea for a competition for high school students. In collaboration with Poland and Hungary but without other republics from the USSR.”, explains Maurice Cosandey.
The International Chemistry Olympiad was born. In 1968, the event took place in Czechoslovakia, the following year in Poland. An annual competition which has been going until today. “ But in 1970, Russia became aware of it and suspended the Chemistry Olympiad which should have taken place in Hungary.” Russia continued by taking the leadership and invited the Soviet republics to the competition in Leningrad in 1971. When it became Romania’s turn to host the IChO, they decided to extend their invitation to Western countries: Austria, Sweden, … and Switzerland.
That Was Not Well Received
The official invitation letter was sent to the Swiss Ministry of Education. Not realizing that there is no such department in Bern: The letter got forgotten in the Parliament Building; a Swiss delegation could not be spotted at the IChO in Romania. However, Austria and Sweden did participate and came nearly last. “These delegations realized that countries from the East outperformed them because they prepared their participants selectively for the competition.” The idea of a preparation phase started to take shape.
In the years to come, the invitation was extended gradually to France, Belgium and other Western Countries. The competition was a huge success and turned into an annual European event. “Ever more countries joined the international community. Every year the host had to change: one year in the East, one year in the West. But Switzerland could never be found there.”
“An Olympiad? What’s that all about?!?”
The mysterious letter kept being addressed incorrectly for 15 years. Until 1986. Thanks to federal official Ernst Flammer, the precious document was forwarded to the Association of Swiss Science Teachers, in which Maurice was representing the Romandy.
“During one meeting, the president took the letter from his files and began to read: ‘An Olympiad? What’s that all about?!?’” Switzerland was invited as an observer to the IChO in the Netherlands. But the association was not interested. Nevertheless, Maurice decided to partake in the adventure: “I went all by myself to the Netherlands, participated as an observer and started to discover this new universe.”
Series Let's talk. The Science Olympiad brings young people from all over Switzerland together. Therefore, she speaks more than 3 languages. How can that be? Is the “Röstigraben” fact or fiction? And: How does science communicate? In our series “Let’s talk”, you can learn all about the topic “Language”. A great chance to get to know the youngest Science Olympiad member: the Linguistics Olympiad!
Step by Step Towards the Olympiads
Very excited Maurice returned. «I directly talked about it with my colleagues: ‘What do you think about a Swiss team for the IChO?’ They answered hesitantly: ‘Why not…well… with all our cantons that’s a bit complicated… why don’t you try it first with the Romandy?’” Also small steps will take you to your goal.
Back at the high school Chamblandes, Maurice Cosandey tried to motivate his students, but without much success. “So, I just selected a few students from my class 3MC and said: ‘You, you and you. You are the Swiss team!’”. One of them was Pierre-Alain Ruffieux, nowadays CEO at Lonza.
The first Swiss delegation took the night train from Lausanne to Budapest. “It was a fantastic experience to drive to the IChO for the very first time with these young people. But in the competition we ended up on the last places”, Maurice says laughingly. “I explained to my colleagues in the association that we ended up in the last spot and that we should think about a different strategy for the selection and preparation of our candidates.”
Maurice Cosandey (middle) and his IChO-Team in 1987 travelling from Lausanne to Budapest.
1993 – The First Silver Medal
In his office at the high school Chamblandes, Maurice installed the first headquarter of the Science-Olympiad. He became a true “community manager”: He recruited participants, trained them for the competition and even designed his own communication material. The posters, which he sent around the entirety of Switzerland, were the first prototypes for the posters we have nowadays. “From St. Gallen arrived a registration. Step by step young people from all over Switzerland were filled with enthusiasm.” Due to the many preparatory courses, also the results of the Swiss delegation improved more and more.
Marco Ziegler was a student that deeply impressed Maurice Cosandey. He participated in three different Olympiads and by himself investigated the water quality in the canton of Thurgau with old instruments from chemical companies. In 1993, Marco Ziegler won the first silver medal for Switzerland. With that, Switzerland was finally joining the race.
When Science and Freedom Go Hand in Hand
“At each Chemistry Olympiad, I have met people with exceptional life-experiences,” reminisces Maurice. Shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he drank a coffee with the Lithuanian chemistry teacher Rimantas Vaitkus. Vaitkus told him about his country’s wish for independence. Maurice told him about the Olympiads and encouraged him to take part with his own, Soviet-independent delegation. As Lithuania gained its independence three months later, Vaitkus was able to send the first official Lithuanian delegation to IChO. Vaitkus later became the minister of education of the newly free Lithuania.
Until today, Maurice still has a two-meter long scarf, which was worn by the Lithuanian delegation at their first participation. A symbol of freedom, but also a scientific and diplomatic symbol, which his old friend gave to him as a token of appreciation.
How does Maurice see the Science Olympiads nowadays? The organization has in the meantime come off its political image but also from its Romand roots. The headquarter is nowadays located in Bern and the majority of the participants comes from the German-speaking part of Switzerland. “I think, behind that, there are different views on education. In the French curriculum, languages are being focused on”, he says.
In the next article of the «Let’s Talk» series, we have a look at the question whether there even exists a «Röstigraben» in the Science Olympiads.
In the German-speaking part of Switzerland, high school education lasts for mostly four, sometimes even six years. In a few cantons of the French-speaking part however, e.g. in Neuchatel and Vaud, the students graduate after only three years. For Maurice this raises questions about equality of opportunity. How is it looking at the international level? “In many countries the Olympiads are affiliated with the ministries of education, the people involved are getting paid, there’s barely any voluntary work. “Like that the high schools are being reached more easily”, means Maurice.
Maurice Cosandey is still committed to the Chemistry Olympiad today! Spoiler: He tells us, that for the IChO 2023, which will take part in Switzerland, he’s planning to invite the old delegation from 1987. To be continued…