How long would it take someone to count out loud to one billion? On Saturday, high school students participating in the 12th annual Yale Physics Olympics competed against each other to estimate the answer (over 31 years at a rate of one number per second).
Over 350 students from 37 high schools across Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island gathered at Sloane Physics Lab for the Yale Physics Olympics, a day-long competition funded by the Yale Physics Department and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of the nation’s largest medical research organizations. Shelton High School won the overall competition Saturday.
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Students come up with answers to five experimental physics problems and a quiz in which they had to estimate answers to questions. The problems and quizzes were all designed by Yale physics professors.
This year’s challenges included predicting how long it took for an unknown amount of water to empty from a funnel and building a toothpick tower. To make sure that every team is on a level playing field, the challenges are kept secret from the students until they compete, Parker said.
The teams that placed highest in the competition received medals, and those who placed highest in each challenge received T-shirts. Teams also received prizes for best costumes, which corresponded with the physics-related name the team had chosen.
The program is free of charge, and all supplies and food are provided. Parker said the competition has become so popular that there is a wait list.
“There is an emphasis on thinking outside the box and being creative,” said physics professor Peter Parker, who runs the program. “There is no right way to solve the problem.”
Parker, who has been involved with the Yale Physics Olympics since it began in 1998, begins preparing for the Physics Olympics every April by holding meetings with physics professors who are interested in putting together the event, which is usually in October. Usually, he said, a group of about 12 professors and 20 undergraduate and graduate students put together the event.
In early May, Parker sends out a total of over 350 invitations to every secondary school in Connecticut, as well as specific schools in New York and Rhode Island. Each school can bring two teams and the competition is capped at 50 teams.
Participants, typically high school seniors and some high school juniors, come from both public and private schools. Teams from public schools win more often than teams from private schools, Parker said.
Physics professor Dan McKinsey, who has helped to organize the Physics Olympics for six years, said that the event helps make physics interesting to students.
“The main thing is that it makes physics seem fun,” McKinsey said. “It helps to increase their ingenuity and their confidence.”
David Gilchrist, a junior at Lyme-Old Lyme High School in Hamden, Conn., said he decided to participate in the Physics Olympics after his physics teacher asked him to.
“It’s taught me a lot,” Gilchrist said. “There’s a lot of hands-on experience.”
Because of the competition’s prestige, the schools build their reputation in the sciences by participating in the Physics Olympics, said Frederick Centrella, a physics and astronomy teacher at Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Conn.