APS News

DPP Stimulates the First US/Russian Internet Olympiad

US Team #2 for the US/Russian Olympiad
US Team #2 for the US/Russian Olympiad
Russian Team #2 for the US/Russian Olympiad
Russian Team #2 for the US/Russian Olympiad

The first-ever electronic Physics Olympiad competition was held over the Internet in May. High school physics students in the San Diego area collaborated electronically with their Russian counterparts in Novosibirsk, Siberia, to solve numerous physics-based problems in the event, which effectively demonstrated that holding Olympiads in the physical sciences over the Internet is both technically feasible and capable of drawing the interest and excitement of high school students to physics and new information technologies.

The idea for the Olympiad was conceived during the annual APS Division of Plasma Physics meeting in New Orleans last fall, where Carol Danielson of General Atomics, one of the event's principal organizers, participated in a poster session detailing the growth of the division's outreach activities. Among those attending was Boris Knyazev, a professor of physics at Novosibirsk, Siberia, in Russia, who is also chairman of Physics Education in Siberia, the Upper Urals, and Eastern Russia. Encouraged by his interest, Danielson invited him to attend an outreach collaboration meeting that evening, where tentative plans for an Internet competition between US and Russian high school students were discussed.

She assumed that it would take several months for preparations to begin in earnest, but Knyazev surprised her by almost immediately obtaining approval for the project and enlisting the participation of several Russian professors. US approval soon followed, with General Atomics agreeing to co-sponsor the event.

Three mixed teams of Russian and US high school students were formed — traditional Olympiads feature teams whose members are all from the same country — with the students exchanging emails a few weeks before the Olympiad to become better acquainted before the event, discussing global defense and nuclear power, and playing tic-tac-toe, which apparently is universal (the Russians call it "X-es and aughts"). Many continued to correspond even after the event concluded, and Danielson and Knyazev have formed a solid friendship.

The computers for each international team were linked by NetMeeting, a program that allows communication in chat and white-board regimes, blank graphic tablets, or screens attached to computers to enable the US competitors to draw and write simultaneously with their Russian counterparts to solve the problems.

"The students said that in 10 years or so, when the technology used is archaic, they will be able to brag that they were among the pioneers of international Olympiad teleconferencing experiments, enabling technology to advance to higher levels," said Danielson. "They were definitely proud of their accomplishments." The Russian students were equally excited and proud to have participated, agreeing that such events should be continued. "It was great, not only a test of our abilities but also a unique opportunity to communicate with the students from another continent," one Russian student told a reporter from the Evening Novosibirsk.

Knyazev reports that the technical staff had heard much talk about "distance learning" and the educational capabilities of the Internet, "but our event was the first real example of how it could work." As evidence of Russia's appreciation of the event, he reported that in light of their victory, the Russian members of Team #2 will be admitted to the university without taking the three entrance exams customarily required for Russian high school students to go to college.

When all the scores were tallied, team #2 emerged as the winner of the $3000 in prize money donated by General Atomics and the DOE. Danielson derived some personal satisfaction from the fact that the winning team included two US female physics students. "It made me feel that perhaps we are finally influencing women to concentrate on science," she said. A US awards ceremony was held on May 27th to honor the winners, attended not only by the organizers and participating high school students, but also representatives from three Congressional offices in San Diego County.

The success of the event and attention it has garnered has piqued the interest of several facilities and institutions interested in participating in future Internet Olympiad projects, including the cole Polytechnique in Paris, France, Princeton, and MIT, as well as universities in Montana, Seattle, WA, and Spain. Future events could have as many as six linked sites per Olympiad. As for Danielson, it was "definitely the most rewarding outreach project I have been associated with."

General Atomics, DOE and the DPP put on the first Internet Olympiad, but several institutions around the country host their own local Physics Olympics, such as that held at Yale University last October (see APS News, April 1999). The University of Hawaii at Manoa also sponsors an annual Physics Olympics, similar in scope and structure to Yale's, co-sponsored by the AAPT's Hawaii Section. This year's competition, held in February, drew nearly 200 local high school students, who competed with each other in six hands-on events.

"Our Physics Olympiad exemplifies a growing cooperation among the university faculties, high school teachers and university students," says Pui Lam, a professor of physics at UH-M and past president of the AAPT's Hawaii Section, who co-chaired the event. The local chapter of the Society of Physics Students has also become involved in recent years, taking on much of the operation and planning, along with local community college students. For a feature article on UH-M's 1998 Physics Olympics, see http://www.starbulletin.com, and follow links to the March 2, 1998 issue and article, entitled "Physics Can be Phun!"

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette