APS News

Students Train Hard for Physics Olympiad

Twenty four high school students spent nine long, intense days at the end of May doing physics, including classes every day, seven exams, two practice labs and four mystery labs. And they had fun doing it.

Members of the United States Physics team, they attended training camp May 19-29 at the University of Maryland. Five members of the team will travel to Singapore in July to compete in the International Physics Olympiad.

The US Physics Team training camp is organized by the American Association of Physics Teachers. The team is sponsored by all ten member societies of the American Institute of Physics, including the APS.

The 24 team members were selected through two rounds of qualifying tests that were taken by students from all around the country.

Robert Shurtz, the Physics Team head coach, is a teacher at Hawken School, a small private school in Gates Mills, Ohio. He said that the US Physics Team members have usually already taken an AP physics course at their high schools. Classes during the training camp focus on topics not typically covered in high school classes, including relativity, thermodynamics, waves, and some quantum mechanics, said Shurtz. These topics do show up on the International Olympiad exams.

These students are already very good at solving problems, said Shurtz. The training camp especially emphasizes lab skills, which some students don’t have the opportunity to learn in school. It’s a lot of material for the students to learn in a week, he said. “The students are bright, and they tend to absorb information quickly.”

Many of the team members were interested in math and science at a young age, and had already taken advanced science and math classes. Many have also participated in numerous science and math competitions. Some are on the US Physics team for the second year. Though clearly excelling in math and science, they do have hobbies other than studying–several are also accomplished musicians, athletes, and computer experts.

Henry Tung, a quiet teenager from San Diego who enjoys programming and assembling computers and playing the saxophone, said he was having fun at the training camp, and learning a lot. “I’m learning about all the physics I want to know, and didn’t want to know,” he said laughingly. The best part of the camp, he said, was getting to know the other students.

Ariella Kirsh, a senior at Hawken School in Ohio, also said she liked meeting the other team members. “It’s a really neat atmosphere. There are a lot of really high-powered people here,” she said.

It is a busy week for the team members, though the students do have a little free time for playing card games and Frisbee, and just hanging out.

During the nine day camp, the team took one day off from training to visit nearby Washington, DC, where they met with their Senators and Representatives, toured the National Air and Space museum, and attended a special reception with the two physicists in Congress, Vernon Ehlers and Rush Holt. Ehlers inserted a statement in the congressional record honoring the team.

At the end of the training camp, five students and one alternate were selected to the traveling team, which will travel to Singapore to compete in the International Physics Olympiad July 8-17. The students were selected based on their scores on the exams and labs during the training camp, which are similar to what they will encounter in the international contest.

The students selected for the traveling team are:

Men Young Lee, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, VA. Last year Lee brought home a gold medal from the competition, held that year in Salamanca, Spain.

William Throwe, a senior at Shoreham-Wading River High School, Shoreham, NY. Last year Throwe served as an alternate to the team.

Sherry Gong, a junior at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH.

Henry Tung, a junior at Torrey Pines High School in San Diego.

Otis Chodosh, a senior at the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics in Oklahoma City.

The alternate to this year's team is Ingmar Saberi, a junior at Pullman High School in Pullman, WA.