A group of gifted high schoolers will defend Austria’s “physical” fitness at the International Young Physicists’ Tournament in early July

The Austrian team’s enthusiasm is palatable as it gears up for tournament, the culmination of a year’s worth of effort. Success is celebrated with high fives and cheers. No, this is not the European Football Championship. This challenge is about light rings, acoustic lenses and magnetic trains. You know, physics.

The International Young Physicists’ Tournament (IYPT) brings together national teams of high school students for a week-long battle for top honors. This year’s competition will be held in Russia from June 26 to July 3, where five talented students will represent Austria.

Founded in Soviet Russia in 1988, the IYPT asks teams to take on broad, open-ended questions – for example, how to pack a roller suitcase so that it doesn’t wobble – leaving the discovery process up to each student’s imagination.

“The problems are not like in school, where you need to repeat some equation. These questions require you to be creative,” says Alexey Zagorulko (17) from the Schottengymnasium in Vienna.

The IYPT is no run-of-the-mill, baking-soda-volcano science fair. Teams are given about nine months to tackle 17 problems selected by the competition’s committee. Why 17? “Sixteen would be too few and 18 would be too many,” comments a committee member wryly, “And people say that Russians have no sense of humor!”

“We don’t give the students the answers, but try to guide them so they are able to find their own solutions,” says Julian Ronacher, a physics and mathematics teacher in Salzburg. Ronacher is leading the Austrian team, together with Martin Schnedlitz, a master’s student at Graz University of Technology, both former participants in the IYPT.

Data Wars
At the competition, the teams defend their solutions in rounds of physics “fights” against an opponent and a reviewing team. The teams rotate until each has participated in all three roles of reporter, opponent and reviewer. An expert jury determines which three teams advance to the finals from which the eventual winner will be chosen.

“You’re fully concentrated for an hour on every detail of the ‘fight’ so when it is your turn, you’re ready,” says Markus Niese (18) from the Akademisches Gymnasium in Salzburg.

The Austrian team prepares for the 2016 round in Moscow.
The Austrian team prepares for the 2016 round in Moscow.

Teamwork and organization are key to having a competitive edge and students begin planning as soon as next year’s questions are published. Rebecca Frank (18) from the AHS Theodor Kramer in Vienna recalls the excitement last year: “We were sitting in a park in Thailand and I got a text message that next year’s questions were online. Suddenly all of us were huddling around the phone calling out what questions we wanted.”

As to their future, science is clearly now an integral part. Win or lose, Rebecca will be following up this year’s competition with a summer internship at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). “We are all thinking about a career in math and science now,” says ­Johanna Hofer (17) from the BG/BRG Freistadt in Upper Austria.

For IYPT contestants, science doesn’t stop in the classroom. “You start seeing physics all around you,” says Luisa Schrempf (17) from the AHS Theodor Kramer in Vienna. I met a friend at the train station whose rolling luggage was wobbling and all I could think about was the Crazy Suitcase problem!”