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Focus on extended essays: Leiden University’s Academic Challenge

For most school students, writing their extended essay (or profielwerkstuk) is the first time they really come into contact with what it means to do research. But where do you start? This is a question that is nonetheless relevant in contexts where the extended essay is written in English, such as bilingual education (tweetalig onderwijs) or the International Baccalaureate (IB).

English-language conference for secondary school students

Tuesday the 4th of June 2019 welcomed the first edition of the English-language conference, Leiden University’s Academic Challenge. Students from bilingual and international schools throughout the Netherlands travelled to the Hague in order to begin preparing to write their extended essay or English-language profielwerkstuk. This event is the English equivalent of the Wetenschapscongres voor vwo that has been organized by Leiden University since 2007, for pupils in Dutch-language pre-university education. This English-language version of the day is in a response to the growing numbers of young people in international or bilingual secondary schools in the Netherlands.

Keynote by David Erhardt

The Academic Challenge consists of both a conference and a competition, and is open to students from 4th and 5th year vwo (pre-university stream), and year 10 and 11 of international education. The day opened with a keynote speech by Dr David Erhardt. Erhardt is a lecturer at Leiden University College and specializes in international development. His research focuses in particular on urban Nigeria. In his talk, Erhardt gave the students an impression of how it can be to attend a lecture as part of a university degree where the language of instruction is English.


Following the keynote, students were invited to attend two rounds of workshops. They were offered a choice of topics related to extended essays, for example formulating a research question, appropriate referencing, academic English and the research cycle.

Extended essay competition

After lunch it was time for the extended essay competition. All pupils in 6th year of vwo of year 12 of the IB were eligible to enter their essay for the competition. Out of the essays submitted, four were selected for the final on the day of the conference. The nominees were allotted ten minutes in which to present the findings of their research. Professor Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Chair of the jury, responded with heartfelt praise to each of the presentations.


In the Humanities and Social Sciences category, the winner was Lois Zonnenberg of CSG Calvijn Zuidergymnasium in Rotterdam, with her essay The Theatre of the Absurd. Her enthusiasm, original choice of subject and the fact that she had written her own play immediately captured the audience’s attention.

The winner in the Science category was Mare van der Hoeven from the Internaional School of Hilversum, with her essay entitled The Effect of Varying Naturally-Occuring Dosages of Tetracycline on Germination Success; An Investigation on 270 Ocimum basilicum seeds. During her presentation she demonstrated a talent for making complex content accessible for her audience.

The schools of both winners have the honour of putting the trophy on display until next year’s Academic Challenge.

Photograph: The nominees: Alara Sumerler (International School of The Hague), Mare van der Hoeven (International School of Hilversum), Lois Zonnenberg (CSG Calvijn Zuidergymnasium) and Luk Sullock Enzlin (Zuider Gymnasium Rotterdam).

(Photography: Stefanie Uit den Boogaard)

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