The Dutch delegation to the
International Physics Olympiad
is in Groningen this week for a training camp. With a mixture of experience and young talent, the team hopes to hit the jackpot in Kazakhstan.
The training camp is to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, particularly when it comes to the practical examinations. ‘We’ve nailed the theory’, says national coach Enno van der Laan. ‘The aim this week is to catch up in the practical examinations.’ The five team members – Arthur, Matthijs, Timo, Bastiaan and Wouter – passed their school leaving examinations with flying colours. But a practical examination is another kettle of fish.
‘Their prime concern is to understand it’, Van der Laan explains. ‘And once they do understand, they stop.’ Which isn’t particularly smart, because the jury expects proper tables with enough measuring points and neat graphs. Colouring outside the lines means points are deducted.
Van der Laan has great expectations of his team this year. ‘They are the best five physicists in their class in the Netherlands.’ The selection started with 4000 entrants, who were reduced in a number of rounds to 30. The top five emerged in the national final.
In the lab in Nijenborgh 4, the five team members are served up an intensive programme of experiments. Pendulum movements, a black box (that is actually blue) with an unidentified electronic switch inside, a laser setup to measure a dimple in a tray of water and much more.
Bastiaan (just completed his school leaving examination at Petrus Canisius College in Alkmaar) finds it exciting. ‘At school I always knew beforehand what the result would be. These experiments are different.’ He is studying a laser distance measuring device, like you get in the DIY store. The aim is to use it to measure the refractive index of a glass-fibre cable.
Physics is great, says Bastiaan, ‘because you learn how the world works’ – on a fundamental scale. In Kazakhstan, he is mainly looking forward to meeting the almost 400 entrants from 88 countries. ‘And I’m going to try to get the best possible score, of course, even though a medal is probably unrealistic.’
Arthur and Matthijs, who are in the sixth year of the Stedelijk Gymnasium Nijmegen, however, are going for the medals. They were both in last year’s team, and Arthur won bronze. ‘I’m going for silver this year!’ That is Matthijs’s goal too. He won an ‘honourable mention’ last year. ‘Bronze would be fine too.’ Both also find the social aspect as relevant as Bastiaan does.
They say that they learnt a lot from the final in 2013. What did last year’s experience teach them? Matthijs: ‘Always do exactly what they ask.’ Arthur: ‘The experience is important: for example, how long should you deliberate over a question that is just too difficult before you move on?’
All three are going to study physics: the fundaments of matter have taken a hold. Freddie, who is on the technical staff in this phase of the preparations, took part in the Olympiad last year and is now a first-year physics student in Groningen. He is enjoying his studies. ‘You now only have subjects that you like. And it’s up to you whether you go. I usually do though.’
After a year at university, he is aware that he has made a huge amount of progress in the subject. Arthur and Matthijs confirm this. ‘But’, says Freddie, ‘the questions at the Physics Olympiad are sometimes trickier than in the first-year exams. There they are more about knowledge, whereas at the Olympiad it’s more about understanding.’
The Dutch team, which will include debutants Timo and Wouter, will take part in the Physics Olympiad from 13 to 21 May. Will it be a heroes’ return for them at Schiphol? Coach Van der Laan does not rule anything out.
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