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U.S. Team Makes Strong Showing at 2000 International Physics Olympiad

Physics Olympiad students
Physics Olympiad students doing lab work at University of Maryland training camp. Photo courtesy of AIP
The five members of the 2000 U.S. Physics Olympiad team returned from this year's competition in Leicester, England, carrying one silver and four bronze medals. The competition brings together the top physics students from 62 countries. The 300 participating high school students battled to solve physics problems their own teachers might have had trouble with; nevertheless, Team USA made a strong showing.

Gregory Price from Falls Church, Virginia, was the top U.S. scorer, placing 16th overall, and winning a silver medal. Anthony Miller from Hopewell, New Jersey, Michael Vrable from Del Mar, California, Jason Oh from Cockeysville, Maryland, and Joseph Yu from Irvine, California, all received bronze medals. The United States team finished seventh overall, with China, Russia and India taking the top three spots respectively. The U.S. was also one of only five countries (China, Russia, Hungary and Iran being the other four) that had all five team members win medals.

Price, a sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, won his silver medal and 16th place ranking despite having never taken a formal physics course. He drew on his long-standing fascination with science and innate mathematical ability - he is a member of his school's math team and spends several hours a week honing his problem-solving skills - along with an old college physics textbook, to solve assigned problems. In addition to the Physics Olympiad, Price took first place among high school sophomores in the largest math competition in the U.S., and placed second among his peers in a major national computing contest.

Among the bronze medalists, Vrable is a senior at Torrey Pines High School, and has represented his school in science olympiads every year since he was a freshman. A National Merit finalist, he also takes math and computer science classes at the University of California, San Diego, and plans to attend Harvey Mudd College next year. He says his favorite event was called "Mission Possible," with the objective of building "a Rube-Goldberg-like machine." Miller, who attends Hopewell Valley CHS, gained valuable problem-solving experience in physics during a summer internship at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in 1997, where he worked on the development of a residual gas analyzer system for the lab's new NSTX reactor. Joseph Yu is a senior at University High School, where he is president of both the math and science clubs. In addition to being highly active in various physics and math competitions, he plays the piano and enjoys playing basketball and bridge in his spare time. Bronze medalist Jason Oh will be attending CalTech this fall, studying both physics and mathematics.

This competition is "a showcase for the best and brightest in the world," says Dr. Bernard Khoury, American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) Executive Director. AAPT hosts the students while they attend the U.S. Physics Training Camp, which prepares them for the rigorous International Olympiad.

During the camp, team members listen to guest lecturers and participate in a grueling five-hour practice exam, designed to simulate the rigorous testing that the team will endure in international competition. Based on this, the final team members are selected. This year's guest lecturers included Charles Bennett, an IBM Fellow who specializes in quantum computing, a discipline which aims to recast and enlarge our notions of information in light of quantum physics and put them to practical use, and Dick Berg of the University of Maryland, who administered a "Physics IQ test" to the team as part of his lecture.

One highlight of this year's training camp was a special tour of Washington, offering the students the rare opportunity to give national science and education leaders insight into the U.S. educational system. Activities included a special breakfast with several members of Congress, hosted by Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) and Rush Holt (D-NJ), both PhD physicists, to enable students to interact with their government leaders. Afterwards, they met with Presidential Science Advisor Neal Lane, Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Arthur Bienenstock, Associate Director for Science, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Duncan Moore, Associate Director for Technology, OSTP. The U.S. team members also met with staff members at the National Science Foundation, who discovered that most of the students developed their interest in physics during their middle school years or later, often encouraged by parents or by teachers who used innovative teaching methods and allowed hands-on work.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette