Youngsters Flex Brains, Not Brawn, at Physics Olympics

It wasn't the kind of strategizing you'd expect to overhear during an Olympic event. "You have to make sure the spring is even," said Richard Kwan, a senior from Weston High School, as he fiddled delicately with one of the three cylinders hanging from the apparatus above his head.

It wasn’t the kind of strategizing you’d expect to overhear during an Olympic event. “You have to make sure the spring is even,” said Richard Kwan, a senior from Weston High School, as he fiddled delicately with one of the three cylinders hanging from the apparatus above his head.

“Let’s try one at a time,” offered teammate Max Sloan.

“Okay, now,” replied Andrew Pesco as he held a dangling cylinder to the side and prepared to release it. “Ready? Go!”

Usually the term “Olympics” conjures images of Herculean feats of strength, endurance and speed. But for the 250 students and teachers from 43 different high schools who gathered on Science Hill on Oct. 18, the Physics Olympics were a chance to exercise their skills in deductive reasoning, theoretical application and experimental expertise.


2008 Physics Olympics
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2008 Physics Olympics
Photographs by Harold Shapiro.
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Hosted by Yale’s Department of Physics every year since 1998 and funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Physics Olympics brings students and teachers from across Connecticut, along with several from New York and Rhode Island, to participate in a day-long competition that tests their understanding of physics with a series of creative, hands-on challenges.

“We want to get them excited about science,” said Peter Parker, the program’s organizer and a professor of physics and astronomy at Yale. “It’s a chance to open someone’s mind and show them physics can be fun.”

In addition to the event involving the cylinders and springs, in which the teams had to synchronize three oscillators to allow a beam of light to pass through them, other events challenged the students to build an electromagnet, deduce the density of two different gases contained in balloons, extrapolate the number of marbles in a container after experimenting with containers of different volumes, and construct a telescope out of three lenses that could be used to read an eye chart at a distance.

“We’ve been to a couple of other competitions, and we did well at those, so we thought this would be fun,” said Sloan, who like most of the participating students, competed for the first time this year.

“We do two other competitions, but this is the best one,” said Jack Kingston, Sloan’s teacher who has coached Weston High School’s team at the Physics Olympics for the past four years. “The kids always have a good time, no matter how they do.”

Dan McKinsey, an associate professor of physics who designed and ran this year’s event with the balloons and gases, was impressed with the students’ abilities. “Some groups have done better than I did when I tried it myself,” he said.

Sidney Cahn, a physics lecturer and research scientist who designed the oscillator event, noted how well the students did in the 35 minutes they had to complete each event. “It’s a tremendous challenge,” Cahn said as he surveyed the intensity with which the teams worked. “We’d usually give graduate students a few years to work out a problem like this,” he said, before adding, half-jokingly, “In five years, we expect to have an excellent entering graduate class.”

Although the Physics Olympics weren’t designed to lure potential Yale science majors, many teachers said their students do end up coming to Yale. One participant hoping to do just that was Amymarie Bartholomew, a senior at Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Connecticut, and part of an all-girls team at this year’s Olympics. Bartholomew, who has already applied to Yale and said it is definitely her first choice, hopes to become an environmental engineer and said that the Physics Olympics offered a great chance to visit the campus and compete against other teams.

“It’s pretty intense during the activities, but we’re here with our friends and the competition is fun,” she said. “It’s so hands-on, which is great.”

Teachers were also given the chance to participate in a hands-on activity in a workshop that showed them how to construct a physics demonstration they could take back to their classrooms. “I always do the teachers’ demo,” said Kingston, who in the past learned how to make a cannon that can shoot a ping-pong ball through soda cans - now a popular demonstration in his physics class.

Teachers and students were also treated to a demonstration that showcased other crowd-pleasers, including breaking a beaker using sound waves, floating a magnet above a superconductor cooled with liquid nitrogen, and smashing cinder blocks atop someone lying on a bed of nails, all of which garnered “oohs” and “ahhs” from the audience.

“I often get questions after the show about how we do some of the things or how they can replicate the demos we do,” said demonstrator Steven Girvin, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics and professor of applied physics, and Yale’s deputy provost for science and technology.

True to its namesake, the day culminated in an awards ceremony that handed out prizes to the top-scoring teams for each event, along with medals and a trophy for the best overall team. After winning the marbles event, the team from Weston High School let out a collective holler of excitement when their team was announced as the 2008 Physics Olympics champions.

“This is awesome,” said Sloan excitedly. “Totally unexpected, but awesome.”

“You can tell it really means something to them,” said Stephen Irons, a physics lecturer and instructional laboratories director who has co-organized the Physics Olympics since he joined Yale in 2001. “The ultimate goal is to get the students to think creatively about the world around them and realize that process can be fun,” he said.

“If we can get kids to talk about what they did around the dinner table, then we’ve been successful.”

— By Suzanne Taylor Muzzin

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Suzanne Taylor Muzzin:, 203-432-8555