The instructions were simple: Pass a lump of green silly putty through a laser beam twice in as little time as possible using only your wits and an orange Hot Wheels track.
Given 20 minutes and the resources listed above, high school students competing in the 9th Annual Yale Physics Olympics took turns prying the malleable mass of green silly putty into different forms and adjusting the plastic track. Some rolled the putty into a ball and tilted the track so that it would slide past the laser, up the track and back down again. Others separated the putty into two balls, pushing them down the ramp and past the laser in rapid succession. Still others molded the putty to the track and moved the track itself.
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Above the din of teams strategizing, Yale physics lecturer Sid Cahn announced that students should write a description of their approach to the problem on the back of their task sheets.
“Just for posterity,” Cahn said. “It’s not necessary for scoring, but I’d be interested.”
Yale’s Physics Olympics, an event for high school students, often generates this kind of interest and excitement from both students and teachers, participants and organizers said. Featuring five experimental problems designed and run by Yale student and faculty volunteers, the Physics Olympics are known for exposing students to “real-world” physics, said Mark Mierzejewski, a physics teacher at Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Conn.
“I believe physics should be a hands-on course, and that’s how I teach it in my class,” said Mierzejewski, who has been bringing his students to the Yale Physics Olympics since they were founded in 1998. “There’s also a lot to be said for competition in learning, and the students get a chance to see how they can relate what they learn in the classroom to real life.”
Physics teacher Raisa Roginsky, whose team from Guilford High School in Connecticut won this year’s Olympics for the fourth time, said she sees the event as a way to show her students that physics can be both challenging and fun.
“My kids who have won in past years are all over the country studying at places like MIT and the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology,” she said. “It’s a subject that can take them far, and I want them to see that.”
Since most students competing in the Olympics have only been in a physics class for a month, they often lack demonstrated competence, and participating high school teachers must develop a variety of ways to determine which students will represent their schools. Roginsky said she has her students pick the four other students they would most want on their team if they were the captain, while Mierzejewski said his students compete in trial events at their high school.
Program administrator and Yale physics professor Peter Parker said the Olympics — which attract 50 teams of students from 40 schools in Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York — have grown increasingly popular in recent years and now require a wait list for interested participants. The program also received the Elm-Ivy Award for bringing University facilities and resources into contact with New Haven and the greater public.
“It’s a kind of town-gown award with a different name,” Parker said. “The buzzword these days is ‘outreach,’ and lots of people can be cynical about that, but I think it’s a great thing.”
In addition to the silly putty experiment, this year’s events included measuring the period of a pendulum, making and launching a rocket, solving a logic puzzle and communicating with teammates to describe and build technology.
Physics student Blake Johnson GRD ’10 said he enjoys seeing the creative approaches high school students take to physics problems.
“The fun part is seeing what the kids do with [the scenarios] they’re given,” he said. “They seem to really love the challenge of it.”
Eleanor Millman ’07, who competed in the Yale Physics Olympics twice while in high school, said she is happy to give back to the program now as coordinator for the Olympics. During her first semester at Yale, Millman worked for physics professor and Physics Olympics founder Con Beausang, and she said she now volunteers at the Olympics because she loves explaining and teaching science.
Yale Physics Department chair Ramamurti Shankar said the university faculty also looks at the program as a recruitment tool to encourage prospective science majors to apply to Yale.
“It’s the best day of the year for me,” Shankar said. “To see so many students doing physics and other students mentoring them, and students of all genders and ethnicities — it’s exactly the kind of diversity we’re looking to encourage. We’re hoping many of these students will choose to apply to Yale.”
While the students participating in the Olympics routinely come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, the gender breakdown of the event is far less even, with many more boys participating than girls. Millman, who said she has benefited from female mentors in physics, said promoting women in the sciences is an important aspect of the program for her.
Bloomfield High School senior Chenvanes Noble said the challenge of problem-solving is what motivated her to participate in this year’s Olympics.
“It definitely wasn’t to skip school, because it’s on a Saturday,” Noble said. “It’s just-for-fun learning — that’s the only way you can describe it.”
Parker said he thinks students’ competition to represent their respective high schools indicates the rising popularity of the program and of physics in general. Last year, he said, one high school principal allowed his school’s Physics Olympics participants to wear their hats from the event to school the next day, even though caps are typically banned from class.
“I think it’s a great thing that these students are getting recognition from their schools and their peers,” Parker said. “That’s something physics students don’t normally get.”