Yale hosts 15th annual Physics Olympics

Saturday’s 15th annual Yale Physics Olympics drew 50 high school teams from five states.
Saturday’s 15th annual Yale Physics Olympics drew 50 high school teams from five states. Photo by Hayley Byrnes.

If all the rain from a summer rainstorm were gathered into a single drop, how large would that drop be? On Saturday, about 200 high school students tried to answer this question and more as they competed in the 15th annual Yale Physics Olympics, held in Sloane Physics Laboratory.

Organized by the Yale Physics Department, YPO drew 50 high school teams from five states — Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island. Physics professor Cornelius Beausang, who organized the first YPO in 1998, said he was inspired by a similar event hosted in Ireland.

“The event is a way to demystify academia. You don’t need a million-dollar lab to do something that’s meaningful,” he added.

Stephen Irons, this year’s YPO organizer, said the five timed challenges that make up the competition are designed to be more experimental than factually based. He added YPO organizers aim to create an experience students can replicate at home by relying on everyday materials instead of sophisticated equipment. In one of this year’s challenges called “On the Move,” students were given paper clips, cardboard, some batteries and a hot glue gun. With that, they were told to create a device that could move across a track.

For the event’s 15th anniversary, graduate and undergraduate students hosted a question-and-answer session about student life and research at Yale. The rest of the event was structured the same as past years. Along with the five signature challenges, the day ended with a demonstration that included a hovercraft, a laser show and a bed of nails.

Students said the event provided a more hands-on experience than those of their high school classes. Eric Adieri, a Bristol Central High School senior, said that each station forced students to be creative with limited materials, an approach that differed from his more instructional experience in AP Physics.

Though technically a competition, some students said YPO fostered an atmosphere of social collaboration rather than competition.

“Being able to bounce ideas off of friends made the challenges more fun,” said Matthew Oldenburg, a senior at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, Conn.

Roughly 25 undergraduate and graduate students volunteer at the event, along with several physics faculty members. Ariel Ekblaw ’14, who competed in YPO throughout high school and has volunteered each year at Yale, said the event helped her see that women are visible in the sciences and influenced her decision to come to Yale.

Along with teaching students physics, the event also served to showcase Yale’s commitment to the sciences. The event includes a tour of Yale’s lab facilities, including the recently renovated SPL. After working with enthusiastic Yale volunteers, Hannah Lee, a senior at St. Mary Academy in Riverside, R.I., said she is now considering applying to the University.

Irons said that the idea of a Physics Olympics is not unique to Yale. Lewis S. Mills High School physics teacher Jennine Lupo said that her school’s team has also attended a similar event hosted by the University of Connecticut, adding that Yale’s was especially well-organized.

Rain from a summer rainstorm would form a single drop about 2,600 feet in diameter.

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