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Going to iPhO, sharing an experience

  1. Jul 11, 2010 #1
    I am a high school student (just graduated) from the Netherlands who is going to the International Physics Olympiad next week. I am happy I‘ve got here, but also feel I’ve been wasting a lot of time doing things that are beyond my level. I just wanted to share my experience here.

    I’ve never been exceptionally talented in physics or mathematics and even never made it to the next round in any of the Math and Science Olympiads in the last years. This year, however, physics appeared to be a quite a piece of cake for me, because I had decided to study problems from the past few years and the questions of the first round were really elementary and quite similar to ones from the past years. I made it into to the second round but did not expect to get any further. I had to study so much that’s not part of our high school curriculum… Mechanics and electromagnetism were manageable, but getting a ‘steam course’ in thermodynamics or relativity is really not something I’d recommend to anyone. Nevertheless, I’ve put a LOT of time into it and practiced a LOT. In the end the problems appeared to be easier than I had expected (in fact, most were taken from first year university physics books I believe), and totally unexpectedly I ended up as 4th and thus am selected for the iPhO team.

    The past weeks I have done little else than studying physics, but it is not quite what I expected. In fact, there have been times when I really started to hate it. The iPhO problems are WAY above my level and I find studying them not very fruitful. I even have difficulty understanding some of the answers to the questions. Until now, I had always studied from clear books with clear questions with clear teachers, but now everything is becoming unclear and I feel I understand almost nothing anymore. I decided to study from a university book (Fundamentals of Physics), which has clarified a lot for me, but really doesn’t help me in doing iPhO problems.

    Therefore I feel studying in this way hasn’t really helped me understanding physics much more. It has been fun suddenly learning so many new things about physics, but it has also confirmed for me that I do not want to become a physicist. I could do physics well when I learned it from teachers at my school, but feel I can‘t manage to study it at a much higher level with much less help. I can solve problems I‘ve been taught how to solve, but solving unexpected problems isn‘t really my cup of cake. I also do not enjoy doing practical experiments and working with technical equipment. I find physics and science in general interesting, but am not particularly mathematically talented and often can’t make anything out of the more open-ended questions.
    In short, I feel it is taking me too much ‘brute effort‘.
    Although doing the Olympiad has been a real challenge experience and I know I do not want to become a physicist, I am still planning to continue studying science. Next year I am going to university and I’ve chosen an open-ended program (liberal arts and science). But I more and more wonder whether there is a point in studying science at a such a place. Physics and mathematics is so time-consuming to me that I wonder whether studying science for someone without exceptional grades or talents at such a university - where I plan to do a lot more - can get me anywhere… I’ll see… maybe I’ll switch to foreign languages after one semester, haha.
    I still have 6 days before I leave for Croatia. These days I’ve almost only been reading from Fundamentals of Physics and trying to do the problems from them. When I’m done getting through dozens of pages of stuff I’ve never learned at school, I do plan to get back at the iPhO problems from the past years. After all, I don’t want to end up with 0 points next week. I hope nevertheless that I can learn something I DO understand and will have a great experience.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 11, 2010 #2
    The IPhO problems are University Exam level. Although it is said you do not need Calculus for them, actually you do.

    If your team has an organized preparatory session held at some University, you will all benefit from even a few sessions where lecturers introduces you to elements of Calculus, Mechanics, Thermodynamics, Electromagnetism, Optics and Quantum Theory. In fact, if you obtain some college level Physics I and II Calculus based Textbook and go through it, you will benefit significantly.

    You might find these online courses useful:



    Go to the video lectures links and listen to them.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
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