Undergrads Win National Title in Chemical Engineering Jeopardy

| December 19, 2019

USC’s Chem-E Jeopardy team proved their chem knowledge by besting MIT, University of Iowa and UT Austin to take home the top prize

USC AIChE Jeopardy Team (L to R): Kerry Sun, Asang Mehta, Matthew Jeon, Brian Kerstiens and Jacob Toney. Photo / Nick Nuccio

USC AIChE Jeopardy Team (L to R): Kerry Sun, Asang Mehta, Matthew Jeon, Brian Kerstiens and Jacob Toney. Photo / Nick Nuccio

I’ll take “Trojan Excellence” for 400, Alex!

A group of five USC Viterbi undergraduates put their engineering knowledge and quick fingers to the test earlier this month at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Annual Student Conference. The annual Chemical Engineering Jeopardy competition, held in Orlando, Florida, featured the top 14 schools in the country battling it out in the classic trivia game.

USC’s team, composed of undergraduate chemical engineering students Kerry Sun, Asang Mehta, Brian Kerstiens, Jacob Toney and Matthew Jeon, made their historic run to the finals after qualifying at the Western Regional Conference in April 2019. The team had won the regional competition for a few years in a row but failed to gain traction on the national level.

“For the last two years, we have reached the semifinals at the national competition,” said Mehta, AIChE’s president, “but this was the first year we reached the finals and won the competition itself.”

After two rounds of intense competition, the students from USC’s Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science faced off against the University of Iowa and M.I.T. in the final match. The Trojans etched out an early lead, racking up points in categories like physics and the periodic table. But their competitors rallied in the Double Jeopardy round.

“It felt very surreal. The teams we were going up against were incredible.”

Jacob Toney

The game was close going into the final Jeopardy, when all three teams had to correctly guess “the three main factors that determine the capital cost of a specific piece of equipment at a given time.” MIT missed one, losing their chances of victory. Both USC and Iowa correctly guessed the answers — pressure, volume and material of construction — bringing the victory down to the amount of money each team bet. Luckily, the Trojans outbid the Hawkeyes, winning by a slim margin of $101.

Their victory brings them into an elite tier of engineering schools. Recent national title holders include University of Texas at Austin, UC Berkeley and Princeton University.

The USC Jeopardy Team celebrates after their victory.

“Winning was crazy because we didn’t expect to do so. We didn’t even expect to make finals,” said Toney, a junior. “It felt very surreal. The teams we were going up against were incredible.”

Mehta, who will be graduating this year, explained that the victory means a little extra to him: “It feels like a good send-off for me.”

The students have been preparing for the tournament for months, spending their weekly practice sessions poring over questions asked in past competitions. “During the moment, there’s no more learning you can do,” said Toney who admitted that nothing compares to the anxiety and thrill of the real competition. “You just have to rack your brain for whatever knowledge is buried there.”

Student excellence was on display elsewhere throughout the annual student conference, as three Trojans walked home with awards from the poster competition. 

The Jeopardy team’s younger students are optimistic about USC’s potential to reach these heights again.

“I absolutely want to win again,” said Jeon, the team’s only sophomore. “The joy of this accomplishment is incomparable!”

Share This Story