“The work was hard but rewarding”

Yannis Ulrich, Pavlo Kashko, Rayan Harfouche, Tobia Fjellman and Jan Jakub Frybes © 2022 EPFL / Alain Herzog - CC BY-SA 4.0

Yannis Ulrich, Pavlo Kashko, Rayan Harfouche, Tobia Fjellman and Jan Jakub Frybes © 2022 EPFL / Alain Herzog - CC BY-SA 4.0

The Swiss team took third place at the 2022 International Physicists’ Tournament after spending eight months preparing hard for the competition. Here, the passionate physicists reflect on their experience.

What’s the maximum height from which a piece of chalk can be dropped without breaking? What factors determine this height, and are there any dropping or throwing techniques that minimize the likelihood of the chalk breaking? This is one of the 17 problems posed to student teams taking part in the 2022 International Physicists’ Tournament, a global competition whose finals were held in Colombia on 9–15 May 2022. “This problem really stood out for us, because it’s the one we spent the most time on,” says EPFL student Jan Jakub Frybes. “We started thinking about it in September 2021, and we finished it barely three hours before we had to give our presentation at the finals!” The Swiss team ended up breaking some 4,000 pieces of chalk in their experiments. But the effort paid off: their work on this problem received the highest score across all teams and problems.

Thorough preparation

The team took third place out of 15 teams competing in the finals. To achieve this, students had to take a comprehensive approach. “First we had to develop a theory, simulate the theory to prove it described a given effect, and then test it in an experiment,” says EPFL student Yannis Ulrich. “Based on the outcome of the test, we usually had to adjust the theory and start the whole process again.” The students also enjoyed working together, citing teamwork as a factor in their success. “It was great to be able to collaborate, share information and think through the problems with such a diverse group of people [six students representing eight nationalities],” says EPFL student Rayan Harfouche. “It was a very different experience from what I was used to in my classes.” The students also asked their professors questions and consulted experts in other countries. On average, the team members say they each devoted 30 hours a week to preparing for the tournament on top of their regular classwork. “We pulled all-nighters on a number of occasions,” adds Ulrich, who was the only team member who managed to keep up with his classwork. “And in the last three weeks that’s pretty much all we did.”

The Swiss team at the award ceremony of the International Physicists' Tournament 2022 © IPT 2022

At the finals, in addition to presenting their findings, participants took turns acting as both an Opponent and a Reviewer. “Everyone has their own preferences, but I personally enjoyed being an Opponent the most,” says EPFL student Pavlo Kashko. “It was great to be able to ask my own questions and gain insight into how the other teams solved a problem. Being an Opponent doesn’t mean just criticizing another team’s approach. It’s more like a constructive debate.”

Frybes, meanwhile, discovered that he was a talented Reviewer –a role that involves moderating a discussion between two other groups, and that the students prepare for as a team. “Ours was a performance worthy of a talk show!” say the students. “So much so, that people made comments about how well the Swiss team performed in this role.”

A rewarding experience

After a stressful time in the early days of the tournament, the students were finally able to relax. “It was amazing to be able to talk to and connect with other physicists from around the world,” says EPFL student Tobia Fjellman. “I have fond memories of the whole experience and I’d definitely recommend it to other EPFL students. However, I think EPFL could do more to support projects like these by building the preparatory work into the mainstream curriculum like other schools do.”

For the five EPFL physics students who took part, it was an instructive experience that left them with renewed drive and confidence in their abilities – and enabled them to develop close friendships with their fellow team members. “When you’re working with motivated people, you end up pushing yourself more,” says Frybes who, when asked if they’d like to compete again in the future, adds: “We’d prefer to pass the baton to a new team of third-year students so they can benefit from the experience. But if there’s a shortage of volunteers, We’d definitely step up!”


“This incredible experience wouldn’t have been possible without the financial and logistical support we received – EPFL funded our experiments and covered our travel costs, and we were given our own lab. We’d also like to thank everyone who helped us along the way: our team leaders Jean-Marie Fuerbringer, Jean-Philippe Ansermet and Evgenii Glushkov; the ETH Zurich team that worked with us; the other members of our group – Elias Rothlin, Zayneb El-Omari, Adrian Woyke and Quentin Gallien – and the many EPFL professors from different sections.”

Author: Nathalie Jollien

Source: SKIL - Student Kreativity and Innovation Laboratory

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The Swiss team at the award ceremony of the International Physicists' Tournament 2022 © IPT 2022
The Swiss team at the award ceremony of the International Physicists' Tournament 2022 © IPT 2022
© 2022 EPFL / Alain Herzog - CC BY-SA 4.0
© 2022 EPFL / Alain Herzog - CC BY-SA 4.0

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