Campus & Community

Professor of Chemistry Michael Berger Recounts the History of the Avery Ashdown Exam

Simmons has a direct connection to the legacy of chemist Avery Ashdown (1891-1970). Based on conversations with former Simmons Department of Chemistry and Physics Chairs Professors Leonard Soltzberg, James Piper, and Peter Bowers, Professor Michael Berger has pieced together the history of a prestigious chemistry exam that honors Ashdown's legacy. In doing so, Berger uncovers impactful relationships between Ashdown and Simmons.

Sponsored by the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society (NESACS), the Ashdown High School Chemistry Examination Contest, also known as the Avery Ashdown Exam, provides high school students with the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of chemistry and ultimately determines their eligibility to compete at the national level.

Avery Ashdown in 1938, courtesy of the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society
Avery Ashdown in 1938, courtesy of the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society

But who was Avery Ashdown, why did the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society (NESACS) name an exam after him, and why has the exam been held at Simmons College (now Simmons University) for many decades?

Beginning in the early 1960s the National American Chemical Society (ACS) encouraged local sections across the nation to offer competitive chemistry exams to high school students to foster their engagement with chemistry and encourage them to consider future careers in chemistry. In this mid-twentieth-century context, interest in chemistry was intense and highly competitive – perhaps buoyed by the growth of industrial chemistry (e.g., plastics) and the space race. The Northeastern Section's exam, the Avery Ashdown Exam, is regarded as a crucial and rigorous assessment of a student's comprehension and mastery of the fundamental principles of chemistry.

very Ashdown in front of the Ashdown House at MIT, photograph by Ben Wood. Courtesy of the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society
Avery Ashdown in front of the Ashdown House at MIT, photograph by Ben Wood. Courtesy of the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society

This exam is named after the late Avery Ashdown (1891–1970), a longtime Professor of Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ashdown was also active in the Northeastern Section as Chair of NESACS in 1941 and served as Editor of The Nucleus, the Society's journal, for many years. Born in North Collins, New York, Ashdown received his master's degree in 1916 from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Chemistry from MIT in 1924. From 1925 to 1957, he served as a member of the faculty of the Department of Chemistry at MIT. He was the first housemaster of the Graduate House at MIT, which in 1965 was renamed the Ashdown House in his honor.

Simmons developed a connection to the Avery Ashdown exam decades ago through the advocacy of Dr. Phyllis Brauner. Dr. Brauner was a professor at Simmons University for thirty-four years, the Director of the National Science Foundation Summer Institutes for High School Chemistry Teachers, and an active leader in NESACS as Chair and Editor of The Nucleus. Her deep involvement with local high school chemistry teachers and with Avery Ashdown in local ACS section activities brought the exam to Simmons in his name. Dr. Peter Bowers, who took over the administration of the exam from Dr. Brauner, worked with the then President of Simmons, William J. Holmes, to establish a cash prize of $500, called the Simmons Prize, awarded to the student who earned the top score on the Avery Ashdown exam. The winner receives their prize at the annual NESACS meeting in May.

Since 1984, the Avery Ashdown exam has been utilized as a qualifying exam for the United States National Chemistry Olympiad (USNCO) exam. The top twenty-five scorers from the Ashdown Exam (maximum of two per high school) are invited to participate in the USNCO.

Historically, the USNCO has been administered at local colleges and universities affiliated with the American Chemical Society, including Simmons. Most recently, Simmons administered the USNCO in Lafavour Hall on April 15, 2023. Simmons provided test-taking space for the twenty-one exam participants, as well as laboratory space, chemicals, laboratory equipment, refreshments, and parking spaces.

Typically, around one thousand high school students nationwide take the USNCO exam. Of these test takers, the top twenty scorers are invited to attend the USNCO Study Camp for two weeks in June at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. From this group, four students are selected to represent the US in an international competition known as the International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO). The annual IChO aims to foster collaboration and friendship within the scientific community.

By maintaining its involvement with the Avery Ashdown Exam, Simmons helps perpetuate the legacy of Ashdown and assists NESACS to prepare generations of chemists.

There is yet another connection between Avery Ashdown and Simmons, which goes back to the earliest decades of the twentieth century, namely James Flack Norris. Norris obtained his doctorate in 1895 from John Hopkins University and proceeded to teach at MIT. In 1904, Norris left MIT to become the first Professor of Chemistry at the newly formed Simmons College (established in 1899 with the aspiration of becoming the "MIT for women"). Over the next twelve years, Norris rigorously organized Simmons' chemistry curriculum and its laboratories.

From 1907 through 1910, Norris served as Director of the School of Science at Simmons, and later returned to MIT. It turns out that Avery Ashdown was a graduate student of Norris in the 1920s. So, another connection between Simmons and Avery Ashdown is that both share James Flack Norris as their teacher and mentor.

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