S'pore students top world contest for third time in a row

A team of five Singapore students has come out tops among 27 countries in an international physics tournament for young people aged 15 to 18.

It was Singapore's third consecutive championship title in the International Young Physicists' Tournament (IYPT), the Education Ministry said in a statement yesterday.

Singapore is the first country to achieve this feat at the tournament, held this year in Thailand from June 27 to July 4. Poland was second, and China third.

Participating teams were given a list of questions to work on last year. They got cracking on the solutions, and presented them before a panel of experts.

Puzzles included why blowing on a blade of grass or a strip of paper produces a sound, and clothes look darker when they get wet.

Raffles Institution (RI) student Shen Yu Jun, 17, said he spent nearly a year working on three of 17 problems. His teammates took care of the others. Seniors from previous editions of the tournament, and teachers provided guidance.

Mr Sze Guan Kheng, 44, a physics teacher at RI, who led the team, said it is a learning journey for educators too. "We may know the theory, but it is a challenge carrying out an experiment to accurately measure certain things." This includes, for instance, measuring the amount of light passing through cloth when it is dry, and when it is wet.

But what Yu Jun found most challenging was having to poke holes in the other teams' solutions, which was part of the competition.

The goal is to expose flaws and weaknesses in the other team's solution, and challenge the argument.

"You need to have a good understanding of the topic to be able to critique another team's solution and suggest a better approach," said Yu Jun, who was also on last year's winning team. The others were first-time participants.

But this is a meaningful part of the competition, he said. "It is very similar to the actual research process done by scientists. Apart from the criticism, it is important to collaborate and build knowledge."

Yu Jun's teammates included fellow schoolmates Lee Yu Tse, 17, Wittmann Goh, 16, and Lim Jun Heng, 16, as well as Koh Jin Ming, 17, from the NUS High School of Mathematics and Science.

Mr Sze said the Singapore teams do well as they have strong support from the schools and the Education Ministry. "There's a very good structure in place. Seniors come back and coach the current team. Those involved in the competition are also excused from school for three weeks before the June holidays to train full-time," he said.

The students train together and help each other when anyone runs into problems.

Singapore also did well in the International Olympiads for Mathematics and Science, bagging gold and silver medals in all areas except for informatics, where the team won a silver and three bronze medals.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2015, with the headline 'S'pore students top world contest for third time in a row'. Print Edition | Subscribe