Defying the laws of normalcy, 250 high school students crowded into two Sloan Physics Lab lecture halls Saturday morning to hear physics professor Cornelius Beausang speak.
The students gathered for the opening ceremonies of the sixth annual Yale Physics Olympics, an event hosted by the Physics Department in and around the Sloan Physics Lab. The event consisted of a series of problem-solving activities designed to challenge competitors’ speed, intelligence and lateral-thinking abilities. Challenges ranged from rocket launching to structural engineering.
Students were organized into teams of four students and had all day on Saturday to complete five “labs,” during each of which they were given limited, non-renewable materials to help accomplish a set goal. At the end of the day, each team was ranked based on speed and accuracy and trophies, and medals and other prizes were distributed to teams based on overall performance.
The theme of the event was “Physics is Fun,” and consequently, all of the activities were designed for students to apply their knowledge creatively and unconventionally. Calculators were banned from the event.
Physics professor Cornelius Beausang, who was the driving force and main organizer behind the Olympics, said he thought to bring the event to Yale after helping to start it at the University of Liverpool in Liverpool, England.
“The event is a great opportunity to get students here for a day, particularly from inner-city schools, to see how interesting and involved physics can be,” he said.
In one activity, teams scrambled to create a simple bottle rocket launcher using only a thick plastic tube, a file folder, a meter stick and rubber bands. One group of students exchanged high fives after successfully launching their rocket using only the rubber bands.
In another activity, teams were asked to measure the frequency of red light given only a light-filtering device and a meter stick.
“I work with complex measuring tools every day, but they just complicate this process,” Hanan Amro, a post-doctorate physics student who volunteered at the event, said. “This is realistic, and it’s amazing to see the things they’re doing.”
Participating high school teachers said they found the event to be an invaluable learning tool. Judie Kalinowski, a teacher from Middletown High School, said she thought the day was an excellent way to get students excited about science.
“This is the fifth year I’ve entered students in the event, and it is the best because it involves problem solving and not just cranking out equations,” she said. “It’s also a lot of fun, and I love for the students to see how excited people are to be here.”
Students said competing for the chance to participate in Saturday’s contest was fierce. James Mudford, a student from Chaminade High School in New York, said he was honored to be one of the seven students chosen from his school to attend. The students from Masuk High School, who were chosen randomly from a pool of interested students, said they felt lucky to participate.
Beausang said that the event has nearly tripled in size since the first one of its kind five years ago, growing almost exclusively by way of word of mouth. This year’s event was the biggest yet, drawing students from several states in the Northeast, and for the first time, from a school in Georgia.
“This year we have students from Georgia,” physics professor Rich Casten said. “Someday, maybe they’ll come from Mars.”