Israeli competition challenges safe-cracking skills of 4 Clark County school teams

Call them either Bycraft’s Five or a reincarnation of the Hole in the Wall gang, but a team of four juniors and one senior from Green Valley High School is ready to crack some safes.

Science teacher Mike Bycraft and members of the Henderson school’s engineering club are headed to Israel in March to compete in an international safecracking competition at the world-renowned Weizmann Institute of Science, a research facility.

Bycraft and his students — senior Jake Lee and juniors David Li, Corbin Smart, Thomas Conibear and Alexander Gibson — will fly to Rehovot, Israel, south of Tel Aviv, for the event featuring 68 teams from around the world. Teams from the United Kingdom, Spain and Canada also will participate.

In the 20-year history of the competition — known as the Shalhevet Freyer International Physics Tournament — U.S. students have never participated. This year, seven U.S. high schools — four from Las Vegas, two from Texas and one from Los Angeles — are sending teams to take part in the international competition.

The schools from Las Vegas include Green Valley, Rancho High School, the Adelson Educational Campus and The Meadows School.

The competition is really an exploration of physics and applying science to real-world exhibits, said Ariel Heimann, director general of the Davidson Institute of Science Education, the educational arm of the Weizmann Institute.

Each team must use the principles of physics to build a safe-locking mechanism that other teams must break into, Heimann explained. The winner is judged on the best use of scientific principles, not for actually cracking the other safes.

On Tuesday, Heimann and others representing the Weizmann Institute, visited Green Valley High School to review the progress students have made in building their safe.

Jake Lee and David Li explained how the Green Valley contingent’s safe uses lasers and weighted-down, oscillating strings to create an impenetrable safe.

It’s actually a simple concept, created by his students, Bycraft said. The students used the idea of waves — think water — and lasers to create a puzzle. But the water part was a bit difficult to conceptualize, so they replaced it with a string that oscillates via a “string vibrator.” To unlock the safe, fellow competitors will have figure out a pattern, Bycraft said.

The design of the safe, when complete, will also have a Las Vegas feel as it will incorporate a roulette wheel, Bycraft said.

The safe will be completely assembled by Monday, but the team gave a demonstration to Heimann and the contingent from the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute.

The primary questions for Heimann were actually concerns about getting the contraption on the plane and past Transportation Security Administration officials. There are lasers, after all.

Win or lose the competition, the students have already won by working in teams to build a safe, Heimann said.

The tournament has several goals, such as encouraging interest in science among high school students, promoting science as a team sport and promoting peer interaction among students from different cultures and nations, Heimann said.

The competition will feature time for the students to interact with each other, Heimann said.

Today, too many students have dreams of becoming famous as actors or rich in the stock market and business world, he said. The world needs more scientists to confront its problems, though it requires hard work, Heimann said.

“Israel used to be known for exporting its oranges, now we are known for exporting our minds,” said Heimann, who was a geologist before being tapped to lead the Davidson Institute.

The international students competing, including those from Las Vegas, are provided financial support from the Davidson Institute to make the trip. The Las Vegas teams are receiving additional financial assistance from the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas, said federation president and CEO Elliot Karp.

Meanwhile, in a city famous for its fictional and real safecrackers, the students from Green Valley were more than a bit interested in what it would be like to crack a real safe.

It’s an employable skill in Las Vegas, they said.

By learning how to build an uncrackable safe, or learning to break into one, “either way you have a job,” Li quipped.

Contact Francis McCabe at or 702-224-5512. Find him on Twitter: @fjmccabe

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