High school students show physics prowess

Yale might not seem like an ideal venue for an Olympic-level competition, but this Saturday, hundreds of high school students proved otherwise as they vied for coveted gold, silver and bronze medals in the fifth annual Physics Olympics.

With an all-time attendance record, the event attracted 54 high school teams from Connecticut and surrounding states. The approximately 200 students participated in a range of activities, from determining the lifting force of a helium balloon to building a bridge with a sheet of paper. Physics professor Cornelius Beausang, who started the event five years ago, coordinated the Physics Olympics along with other physics professors and physics majors.

The Physics Olympics boasted five venues near the Sloan Physics Lab, with each location having its own activity. The participants were required to complete seemingly simple tasks with nontraditional tools. Each team was composed of four students from the same high school.

In one event, students were asked to find the lifting force of a helium balloon using only a meter stick, string, scissors and a few weights.

Physics professor Tilo Wettig said that with the limited tools, students could only solve the problems by thinking in nontraditional ways.

“It’s up to them how to approach the problem,” Wettig said.

The other four events included finding the density of an egg, building a bridge with paper and determining locations relative to a fixed mark without a compass.

But the activity that seemed to draw the most excitement was the “wave function,” in which the team members had to pull a string back and forth in order to simulate a wave-like motion. The simultaneous movement of the students resulted in an organized chaos, where yelling teammates sprinted back and forth, breaking strings and stumbling off track.

Hanan Amro, a research assistant at Wright Nuclear Structure Lab, said the chaos was part of the learning process.

“Students don’t get the hang of it right away,” Amro said. “They discover things, break a few strings.”

Beausang first thought up the idea for the competition while still working at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. Beausang said that through this event, he wanted to encourage high school students to take physics courses in college, even though such classes are sometimes stigmatized for being overly difficult and theoretical.

In the five years since its inception, the Physics Olympics has more than doubled in size, Beausang said. The first event was fairly small, with only slightly more than 20 teams participating.

Sal Trentacoste, a physics teacher from Cheminade High School in Long Island, said he was so impressed with the first Physics Olympics that he has returned with a team every year since.

“[It's] an excellent opportunity for science students to enjoy physics without an ultimate evaluator or test,” Trentacoste said.

Though Trentacoste admitted that his team becomes fairly competitive when it comes to winning medals, he said that fun is the most important part of the day.

Beausang said he thinks the most fun aspects of the event are the hands-on problems that involve “getting dirty or making a mess.”

While Beausang said he was pleased with this year’s turnout, he said he would like to make the event even larger next year. However, Beausang said he does not want to change the event’s festive atmosphere.

“Some schools even send cheerleaders,” he said.