Enriching Education

Making Science Cool: The Weizmann Institute’s International Safe-Cracking Tournament

TAGS: Community, Education, Physics

Next Tournament: April 5-6, 2016

The Emery/Weiner School Safe-Cracking Teams from Houston, Texas at the Weizmann Institute’s 20th annual International Physics Tournament.

About the Tournament

Imagine a competition that takes education out of the classroom and brings science to life. Since 1995, the Weizmann Institute’s International Shalheveth Freier Physics Tournament has done just that, transforming the lives of students around the world.

This exciting competition challenges teams of high school students (juniors and seniors) to design impenetrable safes. Over a period of six months, each team works collaboratively to build a locking mechanism for a standard wooden box, based on the laws of physics. Teams are encouraged to get creative with their designs, adding anything from lasers to water, string, ping pong balls, and other objects to make the locking device “uncrackable.” Then, ​each spring, the students travel to the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, for the final round of the tournament, in which teams compete to unlock one another’s safes by solving the underlying physics riddles.

Judges from Weizmann’s Davidson Institute of Science Education score each team based on the originality of the physics concept, how the concept was applied, and the endurance of the safe against break-ins. At the end of the two-day competition, winning teams receive trophies and cash prizes.


The USA Gets Cracking

The international safe-cracking tournament welcomes student participants from all over the world, but until recently, the United States has not had significant representation. That all changed in 2015, when generous philanthropists made it possible for seven U.S. teams to travel to the competition in Israel.

In March 2015, the American students and their teachers—hailing from the Adelson Educational Campus, Green Valley High School, the Meadows School, and Rancho High School in Las Vegas, the Emery/Weiner School in Houston, and the Milken Community High School in Los Angeles—arrived on the Institute’s campus, ready to represent their country. “Competition day is finally here!” wrote Emery/Weiner School science teacher Kristine Varney. “After months of hard work, it all comes down to this. The safes are working perfectly and we couldn’t be more proud of our teams.”

Adelson Educational Campus safe-cracking team

The Adelson Educational Campus Team from Las Vegas, Nevada proudly represented the United States. 

The Milken Community High School Team from Los Angeles, California showcased their safe at the competition in Israel.

In addition to testing their science skills in a fun, practical way, the U.S. teams had the opportunity to meet peers from across the globe. This year’s competition was the largest in its 20-year history, with 72 safes arriving from Canada, the United Kingdom, Slovenia, and elsewhere. Although the American students did not take home the grand prize, they took away the invaluable experience of following their curiosity and expanding their worldview.

The Meadows School Team from Las Vegas, Nevada posed with their participation plaque at the competition’s closing ceremony.

As an added bonus of their participation in the tournament, the students and teachers also had the chance to see some of Israel’s top historical and cultural attractions. Visits to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a Bedouin camp in the Negev, and the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv capped off a fascinating, fun-filled journey of discovery.

Rancho High School students from Las Vegas, N​evada rode camels in the Negev desert.

“The trip to Israel was perhaps the most extraordinary event of my high school career,” said Quinn Bell, a Rancho High School team member. “I was able to visit a country that I would likely never see otherwise and participate in a top-tier academic event. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity.”

Upon returning home, the students shared their experiences with their parents, communities, and even state legislators. Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval took a special interest in the tournament, requesting to meet the Green Valley team and see their safe during a school visit. The Las Vegas public school teams ​were honored by the Clark County School District Board of Trustees.

Beyond this recognition, the American teams expanded their horizons and got a taste of “investigation for the pure love of science,” as Rancho High School teacher Sara Quintana put it. “As educators, it’s important to prepare students for the world...This trip offered a unique opportunity for my students to experience a new country, culture, and history,” Ms. Quintana said. “This combined with the academic rigor of the physics tournament leaves no doubt in my mind about the value and lasting impression of this wondrous opportunity.”

“Our son grew so much from the experience, intellectually, culturally, and spiritually,” added the parents of one of the American students. “The growth of our children in this way brings an immeasurable sense of gratitude.”

Next Year in Rehovot

Moved by the outpouring of enthusiasm from this year’s participants, their schools, and their families, the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science is determined to increase the number of U.S. teams at next year’s safe-cracking competition. As part of this endeavor, we hope to host a preliminary, national tournament, with the top teams qualifying to represent our country at the international competition in Israel next April.

The American Committee looks forward to introducing more young people to the wonders of the Weizmann Institute, and encouraging students to pursue science in college and beyond. By making science cool, our goal is to inspire the science leaders of tomorrow.

For more information about participating in the 2016 safe-cracking competition or sponsoring a team, please contact physics@acwis.org.

Watch highlights from the 2014 competition.