At Suvarnabhumi airport one late afternoon last month, throngs of teachers, students, parents and journalists were waiting for the arrival of the five Thai gold medallists who were returning from the International Physics Olympiad (Ipho) in Croatia. The champions were greeted by Deputy Education Minister Chaiyos Jiramethakorn, photo sessions and banners welcoming the triumphant students.
The five gold medallists from the latest International Physics Olympiad are welcomed on their return to Thailand by Deputy Education Minister Chaiyos Jiramethakorn, centre, and Pornpun Waitayangkoon, PhD, president of Ipst, on the minister’s left. The medallists are, from left: Nakarin Lohitsiri, Siraput Jongaramrungruang, Isarapong Eksinchol, Weerapat Pittakanchit and Chayakorn Pongsiri. COURTESY OF IPST
Thailand sent five students to compete in the Ipho. "This is the first time that all our representatives are gold-medal winners," says Pornpun Waitayangkoon, PhD, president of the Institute for the Promotion of Science and Technology (Ipst), and a driving force behind the students.
Another driving force is the Promotion of Academic Olympiads and Development of Science Education Foundation, which is under the Patronage of Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana Krom Luang Naradhiwas Rajanagarindra (Posn) and other science associations.
This year, the success achieved by Thai students at the International Science Olympiads (ISO) is not limited to Ipho alone. All in, Thai youngsters have won 13 gold medals in the five ISO subject categories.
Only the best will do
Each year, high school students from around the world attend ISO. Out of over 52,000 applicants, and after several intensive selection processes, 23 students were picked to represent Thailand to compete in the five branches.
Besides Ipho, they are the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO), the International Biology Olympiad (IBO), the International Chemistry Olympiad (Icho) and the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI).
The Olympiads are hosted by different countries. This year, IMO was held in Kazakhstan, IBO in South Korea, Ipho in Croatia, Icho in Japan, and IOI in Canada. The competitions were held between July and August. Thailand is the venue for next year's Ipho and IOI.
"The good thing about attending this competition is that I can network with people who may well be my physicist colleagues in the future," says Nakarin Lohitsiri, 17, a Mathayom 6 (Grade 12) student at Triam Udom Suksa School and an Ipho gold medallist.
Nakarin won the gold medal at the Asian Physics Olympiad, which was held earlier this year. He was the recipient of the silver medal at the 2009 tournament. His passion for physics, which has been growing since Mathayom 1 (Grade 7), has brought him great success.
Pinnaree Tea-mangkornpan, who is also from Triam Udom Suksa School, was the gold medallist at Icho, where she was the sole female representative from Thailand.
She says of her victory: "I'm proud that I am one of the persons who have brought fame to my country." At last year's Icho in the UK, she was awarded the silver medal.
For budding biologist Nattapong Sanguankiattichai, 16, a Mathayom 6 (Grade 12) student at Suankularb Wittayalai School and a gold medallist at the IBO, completing each task properly in the limited time allowed was the most challenging part of the competition.
"I was required to dissect a spider to study its anatomy, which had to be done through a microscope. I was very nervous as I had never dissected a spider before," he says. It was the first time that he was competing on an international stage.
Nakarin agrees with Nattapong and Pinnaree that the competition has introduced them to many new friends who share similar interests.
"These national representatives are role models for other students. Because of them, other students are inspired to believe that nothing is impossible if they are dedicated to working hard," says Mrs Pornpun.
Preparing top talent
Becoming a national representative is not an overnight phenomenon. Nakarin, Pinnaree, Nattapong and their peers had suffer through multiple selection procedures, which included attending camps and passing elimination exams conducted by Posn and Ipst.
Generally, at least two years are required to complete the rigorous preparations required to effectively compete in the global competitions.
Duangsamorn Klongsara, associate to the president of Ipst and the person in charge of Ipst's ISO project, explains that students start by applying to take part in a camp in mathematics or other area of science that they are interested in, such as physics or biology. The camps are arranged by Posn at 20 Posn centres across the country to select students to compete in the National Science Olympiads (NSO).
To be selected as a camper, an applicant has to pass an examination, which usually takes place in September. Students attend two Posn camps, which are held during the semester breaks in October and March. The shortlisted candidates compete in the NSO in May.
After the national contest, Posn transfers the students to Ipst, who trains the students for another year to prepare them for ISO. They attend two more camps, one of which is held in October and November, and the other in March and April.
Each Posn and Ipst camp culminates with an elimination exam. Out of the candidates numbering tens of thousands, ultimately six students are selected to represent the country in IMO, five in Ipho, and four each in IOI, Icho and IBO. Lessons at the camps are delivered by instructors from various universities.
"The toughest obstacle was the camps, where elimination exams were held, especially the final camp in March [when the final representatives were chosen]. I studied chemistry 24 hours a day during that period," recalls Pinnaree. "The camps were very intensive. For example, we had to revise within only one or two days all the main content of the chemistry subjects taught during the first year of the bachelor's degree course."
Accompanying each student delegation to ISO is a team of four to five university instructors and a team manger from Ipst, who play crucial roles at the competition.
Asst Prof Ekasit Somsook, PhD, a chemistry lecturer at Mahidol University who led the students and the teachers to Icho, explains that the adults in the group have to translate the question paper into Thai as well as debate the given questions with the question-paper writers to ensure that the questions are correct and relevant. Prof Ekasit is also a trainer of the Thai representatives who take part in Icho.
Generally, the exam papers are bilingual: English and students' native language. The papers are in Thai and English in the case of Thai examinees, for instance. Former president of Ipho Waldemar Gorzkowski, PhD, (1937-2007) took the position that "Ipho is a competition in physics, not in foreign languages".
After the students have completed the paper, the teachers are given copies of their students' papers for grading. At the same time, the organising committee marks the papers separately. Eventually, the two parties discuss and give the final score.
In 1959, Romania was the first nation to host IMO, which is the oldest branch in ISO. In 1989, Thailand joined the Olympiads for the first time, sending six representatives to compete in the 30th IMO in Germany. One of the representatives won the bronze medal. The country first sent representatives to compete in all five categories in 1991.
So far, Thai students have brought home 76 gold, 139 silver and 125 bronze medals, 41 honourable mentions, an award for best solution and an award for best experiment.
According to Ipst's president, these students will become a main force in the development of Thailand's scientific landscape. All the representatives at ISO are awarded full scholarships, from undergraduate to doctoral levels, to enable them to travel overseas to study the branch of science that they signed up for in the competition.
"In the bachelor's degree course, students are asked to study only the fundamental sciences [e.g., physics, biology and chemistry]. At the postgraduate level, they can choose from among the applied sciences," says Mrs Pornpun, adding that 90 percent of the student representatives have received scholarships since the institution started distributing scholarships in 2001.
The first group of scholarship recipients will return to Thailand next year. They are expected to work in the state sector.
Nakarin has decided to accept a scholarship to study physics overseas, and he will continue in this field until he receives a doctorate. Nattapong is also considering a scholarship offer.
Just the tip of the iceberg
The results achieved by Thai representatives at ISO over the past several years are highly commendable, but those successes represent only the tip of an otherwise lacklustre iceberg.
For example, the overall performances of many mathematics and science learners in Thailand continue to be unsatisfactory. Additionally, the results of the latest O-Net (Ordinary National Educational Test) exams in science and mathematics for Mathayom 6 students show that the average score for the two subjects is 29 out of 100.
The latest PAT (Professional Aptitude Test) figures further reveal that out of around 131,000 students who took PAT1 (mathematics), the average score is 56 out of a total of 300, and that out of around 133,000 students who took PAT2 (science), the average score is 85 out of 300.
Mrs Pornpun suggests that improving student performances needs the collaboration of all the parties concerned, particularly schools, students, teachers and parents.
"First, teachers need to be encouraged to lead students into doing more self-research, self-practice and active discussions, instead of just feeding them with ready-made information right away," Mrs Pornpun says, adding that teachers need to focus more on deploying the project-based learning approach.
In addition, students need to be provided with sufficient learning and teaching media. "The materials need not be expensive, but they should be things that can nurture students' thinking processes," says the president.
Prof Ekasit says that a major problem in many chemistry classes is that students rarely have the chance to conduct laboratory experiments. Also, most students do not see a career in chemistry as being lucrative or challenging. Moreover, some teachers teach contents that are not in line with the Thai context.
Nattapong shares the concern that the opportunities to perform laboratory experiments in a biology class are limited, due mainly to a lack of equipment. "If I hadn't attended the Posn and Ipst camps, I wouldn't have had much chance of stepping inside a laboratory," he says.
While it is clear that it will take significant time and collaborative effort to improve students' overall performances in mathematics and the sciences, the success of the Thai youngsters at the latest ISO evidences that Thailand is on the right track towards this goal and demonstrates that it is attainable, but only if a nationwide science programme can be expanded to mimic the national arm of the international competition.