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The Physics Olympiad, a Stage for Young Physics Talents to Shine

Just as the Olympic Games is a grand sports event for athletic stars from all over the world to rise and shine, the International Physics Olympiad, or IPhO, is an arena for the brightest young minds in physics to conquer challenges and contest for the best. Each year, the most talented high school physics students from more than 70 countries and regions compete in the IPhO. As a relatively young emergence in the IPhO making its debut at the international competition in 2004, Hong Kong has already reaped remarkable achievements in the IPhO; up to the recently ended 2010 IPhO in Croatia, the Hong Kong team has earned a total of five gold, nine silver and sixteen bronze medals, making Hong Kong one of the top teams in the world.

Since 2003, HKUST has cooperated with the Government’s Education Bureau to train talented secondary high school students for the IPhO. Professor YANG Zhiyu from the HKUST Physics Department is the Chairman of Hong Kong Physics Olympiad (HKPhO) Committee and Head Coach of the Hong Kong International Physics Olympiad (HKIPhO) team, and has headed the Hong Kong teams to the IPhO a number of times. He tells us the stringent selection and training process for the HK IPhO team – At the end of May each year, the HKPhO for Form 4/5 local secondary school students is held at HKUST; some 60 top performers in the HKPhO will then be trained by physics professors from HKUST to equip them with sufficient knowledge and problem solving skills. The training lasts from July till late March of the following year, covering the theoretical basics of the IPhO syllabus. Eight top achievers are chosen through a string of selection tests to represent Hong Kong in the Asian Physics Olympiad (APhO) held in April; of these eight, five will finally compete with the best of their peers in the world in the IPhO held in July. They will be challenged by five hours of theoretical test comprising three problems, as well as five hours of experimental test. The problem set presents realistic and innovative situations, sometimes involving cutting-edge discoveries in the physics field; for instance, 'neutron waves' were once introduced in the written test, with the relevant research published in Nature only one year ahead.

Professor Yang comments that the best students in Physics Olympiads are those with a mind for exploration and with remarkable imagination, they like the physical world around them and are usually experts at assembling 'things'. they have the ability to see through a problem to reach the physics at the core; they learn from mistakes and are adept at connecting different problems. These brilliant young people, who exhibit specialized talent unlike that of '10A' students but are sometimes overlooked in the regular education system, are discovered through the Physics Olympiad, and are given a platform to develop and show their talent.

As the 334 education reform is stepping into pace, Form 6 students would be considered for the IPhO selection. Most selection and training, including the HKPhO, will probably be held three months in advance to settle the Hong Kong team by December in the year preceding the IPhO. HKUST is also considering giving conditional admission offers to students once they make the IPhO team; in the past, three IPhO gold medalists along with a number of silver and bronze medalists had been admitted by HKUST as exceptional cases, a flexible initiative that paves the way for talented students.

Professor Yang encourages secondary school students who wish to try their hands in the Physics Olympiad, 'Never be afraid to try'.

Professor YANG Zhiyu
Head Coach, HKIPHO team