Opinion: SA students are opting out of tackling top international science competitions

Why are South Australian high school students lagging behind other states in trying out for the International Science Olympiads? SA students’ participation in the Australian Science Olympiad exams has slid by 58 percent since 2015, resulting in the lowest percentage of Year 11 and 12 exam registrations in any state or territory. This means there are a lot of students out there who aren’t discovering what they’re capable of.

When I arrived at the Australian Science Olympiad Summer School in 2009, where I’d been selected for physics, I remember feeling out of place. I’d always been good at maths and physics, but a two-week training camp where I was in the running to represent Australia? I thought that kind of thing was for others  – people who actually looked like physicists, not a four-foot-tall Port Adelaide fan girl from Adelaide’s western suburbs.

However, I soon worked out this was an advantage.



At the Science Olympiad Summer School, there are always a few outsiders: participants from smaller states, those who don’t come from selective schools, and those who applied on a whim and never expected to do that well. Yet it’s often outsiders who do the best because this is the first time we get to see our true potential.

It doesn’t matter what gender you are, where you come from or how much time you’ve spent cramming facts and figures. What matters is being able to look at a problem, work out how to solve it, apply whatever science and maths tools you need and communicate your results.

I’m now an engineer at SA Power Networks where we get to do things that are completely new – integrating new technologies like electric vehicles, solar panels and battery storage into a traditional electricity distribution system.

Taking part in the Australian Science Olympiads program and representing Australia at the Asian Physics Olympiad introduced me to what it means to be a physicist and engineer. It convinced me that I belong in this field. While thousands of students participate in the Olympiad exams each year, only dozens are invited to the intensive Summer School training, so there’s nothing to lose when you’ve given your best. And you never know – you might be one of Australia’s next Science Olympians.

South Australia, let’s give it a go!

Cathryn McDonald, Graduate Engineer, SA Power Networks

The 2019 Asian Physics Olympiad will be held in Adelaide from 5 to 13 May – it will be Australia’s first time hosting Asia’s toughest physics competition for high school students. Click here to visit the official website for more information.