APS News

Yale Olympics Show Students That Physics Can Be Fun

Professor D. Alan Bromley with the 'Gold' Medal Winners: Team Beam from Guilford High School, CT.
Professor D. Alan Bromley with the "Gold" Medal Winners: Team Beam from Guilford High School, CT. [Photo from http://wnsl.physics.yale.edu/events/olympics/facts.html]

Constructing an electromagnet, vector navigation, and applying the principle of superposition were among the challenges tackled by the approximately one hundred high school students who attended the first ever Yale Physics Olympics on October 17, 1998, at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. Jointly sponsored by Yale's physics department and Wright Nuclear Structure Laboratory, the event focused on experimental measurements using simple fundamental physics principles, unlike the more familiar International Physics Olympiad, which emphasizes theoretical concepts and problem solving.

"If young people see that physics can be fun, if they can be hosted in a university atmosphere for even a day, then perhaps they can be successfully encouraged to continue to study an important and nationally vital subject," said organizer Cornelius W. Beausang of the concept behind the event. "Even if not, they may go away with an enhanced appreciation of the role of physics in daily life." A professor of physics at Yale, he has organized similar events at the University of Liverpool in England for several previous years. The Yale Olympics was held simultaneously with the Liverpool Physics Olympics and a third event in Australia hosted by the University of Perth.

The Yale Physics Olympics consisted of five events-two of which were held outdoors-for teams of high school students consisting of four students per team. Each activity was an experiment or measurement based on fundamental physics ideas (forces, waves, magnets, etc.), which students completed as a team within 30 minutes. The results were compared to the correct answer, as defined by the judges, to determine team rankings for each event. "The idea was not to intimidate the students, who often had only just started to study physics, with complicated experiments or ideas," said Beausang. "Instead, our plan was to give them tasks that they could complete with a limited knowledge of physics, a modicum of common sense, and a bit of team work."

One of the outdoor events required students to determine how large an overhang they could make by stacking 10 bricks on top of each other. A second outdoor event focused on vector navigation. The teams followed a series of directions all over a grass quadrangle, equipped with a meter stick, a piece of paper, a pencil, but no protractor. The teams were required to measure the distance to the center of the circle after completing a complex pathway.

In an event based on the principle of superposition, team members were connected by a piece of fishing line, which was threaded through eyebolts and wooden poles. Three team members moved along defined paths at constant speeds, with specified amplitudes and periods. The fourth member moved in such a way as to keep the string under tension, achieving the superposition of the other team members' triangular wave motions. Students also measured the lifting force of a helium-filled balloon using elastic bands, a meter stick, some string, and a selection of known masses.

Another brick in the wall: Another case where theory meets the road... [Photo from http://wnsl.physics.yale.edu/events/olympics/facts.html]
Another brick in the wall: Another case where theory meets the road... [Photo from Yale site]

By far the most attractive activity was the "Faraday Pickup," in which students were asked to construct an electromagnet from two nails, five meters of un-insulated wire, two meters of electrical tape, and two AAA batteries. The winning team picked up 80 paper clips, significantly more than the physics department faculty had managed the day before when testing the event.

The overall winning team hailed from Guilford High School in Connecticut, with one of the two teams from St. Joseph High School in Trumbull, CT, placing a close second. The grand prize was a large "perpetual trophy", a model of a carbon atom constructed from a light guide and some ball bearings by the Yale Physics Department Gibbs Machine Shop. Individual "gold", "silver" and "bronze" medals (actually brass, stainless steel, and copper) were awarded to the top three teams overall. All participants received a T-shirt and mug commemorating the event. Participating students were unanimously positive in their assessment of the Olympics.

"I was very much impressed by the tremendous amount of fun the students, the teachers, and indeed our own faculty had during the day, and by the ingenuity of the students, who in a number of cases devised better solutions than did our faculty, who created the problems in the first place," said D. Allan Bromley, former APS president and Sterling Professor of the Sciences at Yale, who attended the event. "Were many of our American universities to put together something similar to this Olympics, I believe that it would be extremely helpful as far as getting excitement back into undergraduate physics programs, and attracting high school students into undergraduate physics."

APS members, colleges and universities interested in participating in future Olympics, or organizing their own, should contact Cornelius Beausang (cornelius.beausang@yale.edu), or call the Yale Physics Olympics hotline: 203-432-5179. Further information can be found online at http://wnsl.physics.yale.edu/events/olympics/.



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