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The 2021 International Physics Olympiad goes virtual

29 July 2021

All five US students received gold medals at the competition, which was originally going to be held in Lithuania.

Team Lithuania at the 51st International Physics Olympiad.
Team Lithuania poses with the country’s flag. From left: Tadas Danilevičius, Justas Kaminskas, Mažena Mackoit-Sinkevičienė (team leader), Tomas Babelis, Monika Šadauskaitė, Emilis Strazdas, and Vytautas Jakštas (team leader). Credit: Mazena Sinkeviciene

As in previous years, students attending the 51st International Physics Olympiad (IPhO) participated in cultural events from the host country. This year’s participants learned traditional Lithuanian dancing, watched a historical drama about Lithuania’s fight for freedom from the Soviet Union, and were taught how to make “pink soup,” a dish made of beets and kefir. Unlike other years, however, students did all those activities online.

After the 2020 IPhO was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organizers adapted this year’s event to a virtual setting. The competition was hosted remotely from Vilnius, Lithuania, from 17–24 July. The 366 student participants hailed from 76 countries.

Kyungmin Kim of South Korea had the best overall score on the physics tests. He also had the best experimental score and tied with China’s Zhihan Zhang for best theoretical score. Antonia-Alma Ghită of Romania, who received a silver medal, was the highest-ranked female student.

Despite having to train remotely, all five members of the US team earned a gold medal for the first time since the US began competing in 1986. Leo Yao of Plainsboro, New Jersey, came in sixth overall, and Zhening Li of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada (a dual citizen) came in seventh. The other US students were Evan Erickson of Lake Elmo, Minnesota; Eddie Chen of Plainsboro; and William Huang of San Jose, California. The team was led by academic director JiaJia Dong of Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and coach Michael Winer of the University of Maryland. The US team is sponsored by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), the American Institute of Physics (AIP), and other AIP member societies. (Physics Today is published by AIP.)

Leo Yao of the US team came in sixth place overall.
Leo Yao led the US team with a sixth-place finish. Credit: Janet Lane/AAPT

In addition to the US, China, Russia, and South Korea finished on top with five gold medals each. Romania, the highest-scoring European team, earned three golds and two silvers. Lithuania received four bronze medals and one honorable mention.

For the experimental exam, the components of which were shipped to the participants, students investigated the effects of temperature on the electrical properties of LEDs and were tested in their knowledge of capacitors. The theoretical portion’s three questions covered thermodynamics and seismic waves, electrostatic lenses, and wave–particle duality.

Organizers faced extra challenges in creating the first virtual IPhO competition, and the event had a few hiccups. In Mexico, Egypt, and Tajikistan, the experimental packages did not make it to the students, so they had to work with IPhO volunteers remotely, according to the competition’s newsletter. Students reported difficulty accessing virtual event links, and Yasuhiro Iye, an invigilator for Japan, said his students faced translation issues in the experimental section of the test. The US students completed the exams in four different locations, with some starting as early as 6:00am.

AAPT is looking for a new academic director for the US team, as this will be Dong’s last year holding the position. “I’d like to encourage physicists to support this program, whether to organize a physics circle or to support a local school,” she says. “Every small piece of effort helps to build a bigger and more inclusive physics learning and physics competition environment.”

Next year’s competition will be hosted by Belarus.

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