Yale hosts Physics Olympics

What do tie-dye togas, retro headbands and bathrobes have to do with physics? Most Yale students would probably say not much — at least not in their lab classes.

But on Saturday, 200 high school students in wacky costumes gathered on the Science Hill quadrangle for the 10th annual Physics Olympics at Yale — an all-day competition between representatives from 40 high schools from around Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York.

No schools from New Haven participated in this year's events.
Lauren Woo
No schools from New Haven participated in this year's events.

During the competition, which was sponsored by the Yale Physics Department and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the 50 participating teams came up with their own solutions to a set of five experimental physics problems designed by the Yale Physics Department.

Teams won medals based on their performance in the challenges. The teams with costumes that matched their team names — which ranged from the names of planets and stars to physics terms — also received special recognition.

“[The program] is a way to get kids excited about physics,” said Peter Parker, program administrator and Yale professor of physics and astronomy. “We’re trying to get them to think about how to do things.”

Parker said the event has become so popular in recent years that it now has a waiting list for schools interested in attending.

Although the competition has involved local high schools in previous years, no schools from New Haven attended the event this year, Parker said. He said he anticipates this trend will change next year with increased communication between the Physics Department and public high school administrators.

The competition is free to all students because of its sponsorship and usually attracts more teams from public than private schools, Parker said.

The high school students are enthusiastic about the event, Parker said, and many teams plan their costumes weeks in advance. Most teams bring more kids than the permitted number — four — to serve as alternates or as “spectators” who are training for future competitions.

Among this year’s most spirited teams was “Venus,” whose members sported togas and wreaths, and “Retrograde” — a physics term referring to an orbit of more than 90 degrees — whose members wore flashy 70s getups complete with mis-matching leggings.

“The kids love it,” said Jack Kingston, the Weston High School team’s coach. “There are always really neat new challenges and you never know who dreams them up and how.”

This year, the event’s challenges involved building a catapult, manipulating a stock market, creating an electrical pathway with resistors, figuring out how to weigh a set of marbles and designing a bridge from toothpicks.

Except for the bridge problem, which they were given several weeks before the competition, the teams received their instructions and set of materials for each of the problems at the event, Parker said.

“It’s definitely challenging and frustrating when you can’t agree on how to best attack a problem, but also a lot of fun,” Stephan Halvorsen, a participant from Branford High, said of the problems.

The Olympics are organized by faculty and student volunteers. Parker said they start planning the challenges several months in advance.

Axel Schmidt ’09, a physics major, said he volunteered to help out with the event in part because he wanted to serve as a role model for high school students.

“In your lab classes, there’s always that TA who you think is the most brilliant physicist in the world,” he said. “It’s cool to be that on some level for high school kids.”

Some of the event’s undergraduate organizers participated in the event as contestants when they were in high school, Parker said. He said many of the high school students end up applying to Yale after coming to campus during the Olympics.

Elissa Dunn ’09, who has helped organize the event for the past two years, said she thinks it provides an important supplement to students’ physics classes by getting them to ask their own questions and apply their own solutions.

“It’s so easy to lose kids in a classroom,” she said. “Science should be hands-on. The Olympics are really about giving you the chance to do things that feel like fun and thinking about why they work.”

Dunn — who is now a physics major — said she disliked science until a similar hands-on experience with physics late in high school changed her mind.

In 2003, former physics professor Cornelius Beausang, the founder of the Physics Olympics at Yale, won an Ivy-Elm award — which awards individuals whose work bridges New Haven and Yale — for creating the event.

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