How many bananas would it take to fit around the state of Connecticut? High schoolers at Yale’s 17th annual Physics Olympiad Competition gathered this past weekend to figure it out.
On Saturday, 200 high school students from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts descended on Sloane Physics Lab to join in a competition designed to test students’ functional understanding of physics. The Olympiad, which started in 1998, began as an effort to get more high school students interested in physics.
“We do it because we all really love science and physics and we really want to share that,” said physics professor Steven Irons, who manages the physics department’s instructional labs and directs the event.
In all, 50 teams from 39 schools competed. Students were split into teams of four and competed in each of five events. The events were all focused on getting students to practice the skills needed in the world of experimental physics. There was no charge to compete, and lunch was provided at the competition — schools only had to provide transportation.
“We wanted to put as low a barrier as possible to come,” Irons said.
Each competition provided students with a different problem. Students predicted where a ball rolling off a ramp would hit the ground, deduced the weight of an object using only a ruler and a cup of water and calculated the number of bananas necessary to encircle the state. The latter was the department’s requisite Fermi quiz, named after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who was known for asking surreal and ridiculous questions. The Fermi quiz, for example, was meant to teach students order of magnitude approximations. It also made students think about what they should expect in an answer.
“A big part of science is when you get a number, you ask yourself, ‘Is that reasonable?’” Irons said.
Corey Adams GRD ’17 said he had been a part of planning the event since the beginning of the semester. The ramp problem proposed to students was a modified version of an idea he had come up with in response to a department email soliciting problems. According to Adams, many of the high schoolers had more accurate predictions in the ramp problem than some graduate students who had tried it before.
While the competitions were being scored, students had the option of attending a lecture on cosmology by physics professor John Harris, and a few physics demonstrations. The demonstrations featured a thermal imaging camera and a smoke ring generator, as well as a fire extinguisher that propelled a tricycle.
Members of Newtownian Physics, a team of juniors and seniors from Newtown, Connecticut, said they enjoyed coming to Yale and participating.
Irons said that planning for the event had been going on since September, although fewer faculty members were involved this year.
The awards ceremony was held in Sterling Chemistry Laboratory.