By Patrice Dougan

They're the Kiwi 'olympic' medalists you've likely never heard of. Touching down on home soil with a gold, two silvers and nine bronzes around their necks from a prestigious global competition designed to challenge the brightest of young minds.

The International Science Olympiad is the pinnacle academic competition for 17-18-year-olds around the world, and just like the sporting Olympics, New Zealand has proven it can punch above its weight on the global stage.

This year saw a gold medal flying back to New Zealand, alongside a tranche of silvers and bronzes.

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It's a big achievement - New Zealand this year outranked much larger nations, including Canada, Australia and the UK.

The physics team came fifth in the world, scoring a silver medal - narrowly missing out on a gold. While biology student Ben Zhang arrived home last week with a gold medal around his neck - and a personal ranking of 26th in the world.

Four Kiwi students in seven science disciplines - physics, chemistry, biology, maths, geography, informatics, and future problem solving - take on hundreds of top students from countries around the world in gruelling challenges that far exceed secondary school learning.

The physics competitors, for example, must present their take on a theoretical problem and then argue their case in front of a panel of judges and debate it with other teams - in what is known as "the physics fight".

Science Olympians: Sang Wook Kim, Carlos Aguilera Cortes, Jonathan Chan, (Centre) Zijun Hui, Janice Ho, (Back) Jack Beagley, Jesse Zhang, Milidu Ratnayake, and Sangheon Yeom. Photo / Dean Purcell
Science Olympians: Sang Wook Kim, Carlos Aguilera Cortes, Jonathan Chan, (Centre) Zijun Hui, Janice Ho, (Back) Jack Beagley, Jesse Zhang, Milidu Ratnayake, and Sangheon Yeom. Photo / Dean Purcell

The competitions often include a five hour practical and a five hour theory exam, with the basis of the questions and tasks pulled from the equivalent of university level research and understanding, said chemistry teacher and Olympiad mentor Stephen McCracken.

"All the Olympiads are at the very premium across the world standard," he said.

"You can't be a mug, you can't just walk in and get a bronze medal, it just doesn't work that way. You actually have to have talent, you have to have worked really hard, and in the end you need a little bit of luck."

New Zealand's top science students will be competing in the International Science Olympiad

Fellow chemistry teacher and organiser Andrew Rogers added: "I suspect there would be very few teachers you could throw an [Olympiad] exam at and they would get a medal. That's the reality."

Science Olympiad medals are recognised by Ivy League universities, and students can use their result to secure scholarships for such prestigious colleges, but McCracken said a similar stance is not always taken by New Zealand's universities. He likened it to "the equivalent of any under 20s side" competing in a World Cup.

However, the students seemed more impressed by the overall experience, rather than the medals they brought home.

Janice Ho, 18, a student at Macleans College who won a bronze medal at the Chemistry Olympiad in Thailand, said she was taken aback by the scale of the competition.

"I didn't realise how prestigious it was really, we even saw the princess at the opening ceremony," she said. "So many people came and it was at that moment I realised this was going to be a really grand, once in a lifetime opportunity."

New Zealand's chemistry team at this year's International Chemistry Olympiad, (L-R) Milidu Ratnayake 17, Zijun Hui 16, Janice Ho 18 and Sangheon Yeom, 17. Photo / Dean Purcell
New Zealand's chemistry team at this year's International Chemistry Olympiad, (L-R) Milidu Ratnayake 17, Zijun Hui 16, Janice Ho 18 and Sangheon Yeom, 17. Photo / Dean Purcell

Students from all over the world were able to unite through their common interest in chemistry, she said, making her forget about the competition "because it felt like a holiday with a bunch of friends".

However, it did solidify her interest in chemistry - having been unsure of her career options before the competition, she realised the subject was "what I really am interested in".

"Studying in school we just learned what the textbook told us, but going to the Olympiad has showed that there's just so much more that we can learn and so much more we can create through chemistry, and it was really fun and it would be a pity to give it all up now."

She's now considering chemical engineering, chemistry, or food science.

Silver medal-winning Jonathan Chang, from Auckland Grammar, thought the skills he learned at the Physics Olympiad in Singapore would stand by him for any future career.

"I think that actually having experience debating your research essentially and presenting it to an international audience is quite valuable," the 17-year-old, who is considering a future in scientific research, said.

• For more information on New Zealand's science olympiads click here.

GOLD MEDAL AFTER 'CRAZY' MAGGOT DISSECTION

"One of the practicals was absolutely horrible, we had to dissect a maggot - a tinsy, tiny maggot about the width of your fingernail, we had to dissect that," an excited Ben Zhang says as he describes one of the tasks he was set at this year's Biology Olympiad in England.

Ben Zhang from Macleans College in Auckland has just returned with a gold medal from the International Biology Olympiad in Coventry, UK. Photo / Peter Meecham
Ben Zhang from Macleans College in Auckland has just returned with a gold medal from the International Biology Olympiad in Coventry, UK. Photo / Peter Meecham

"But the worst part was we didn't get any actual scalpel or razor blades, all we had was two forceps to dissect this tiny maggot, so you had to really just rip the thing open, and what you were expected to do was identify the organs and separate out the different organs, from this tiny, tiny maggot."

It's not the worst part - the worst part was the second task, where students had to dissect an anaesthetised maggot and "observe its beating heart" while it was subjected to different substances like adrenaline.

"It's crazy," he adds.

Other tasks were less gruesome - like working with genetically modified flowers, which he described as "really cool".

"These are the things you only see in textbooks .... It's stuff like that that you're not going to be able to see in a high school laboratory anytime soon."

It's also the kind of stuff that's now convinced Zhang, a 17-year-old student at Macleans College, to stick to biology as a career - looking at either medicine or molecular biology.

New Zealand's top science students will be competing in the International Science Olympiad

Zhang was New Zealand's only gold-medal winning Olympiad competitor this year - and one of only four in the country's history at the international competition. An accolade he's quick to deflect, saying simply the competition was "a great experience", and raving instead about the people he met and the camaraderie among the competitors.

"At the end of the day you feel good knowing that your hard work has paid off, but what's more important is the people and the people that you get to meet at these types of events."

He described the Olympiad as "eye opening and inspiring", saying: "It's like a taste to the people you could potentially be working with if you do go ahead with a career in science."

Zhang believed Kiwi's do so well at the Olympiads because the challenges focus less on rote learning and more on critical thinking and interpretation.

"You really need to challenge your thinking, challenge your knowledge and assumption of the questions in order to do well," he said.

"I think that's where New Zealand kids - as we're told by our tutors - do really well, because a lot of kids from like the US and China, they know 10 times as much as we do but they can't necessarily think 10 times as better than we do, which is how we do so good in the International Biology Olympiad for such a small country, comparatively."

INTERNATIONAL SCIENCE OLYMPIAD: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:

• There are seven separate olympiads making up the International Science Olympiads - chemistry, biology, physics, maths, geography, informatics, and future problem solving.
• They each have a week-long competition held in a different country each year, usually held in July and/or August
• Each country is allowed a team of four (except maths, which can have different ized teams), selected from the top students in their country
• The competition is aimed at 17 and 18-year-olds, the Year 12 and 13 age group.
• New Zealand students compete at a disadvantage as the competition takes place at the end of the Northern Hemisphere academic year, but the middle of the Southern academic year.
• Medals are awarded on a percentage basis to an individual student, for example the top 10 per cent of students win a gold medal.
• Physics is the only subject where the team is judged as a whole, rather than individual students.