By Katherine McAlpine
Photo by Matt Payne The traveling team members and two of their coaches. Left to right: Paul Stanley, Rui Hu, Jenny Kwan, Haofei Wei, Kenan Diab, Jason Larue, and Robert Shurtz.
Twenty-four high school students comprising the US Physics Olympiad team vied for five places on the traveling team at the University of Maryland from May 22nd to June 1st. Those chosen to travel will compete this month against teams from all over the world at Isfahan University of Technology in Isfahan, Iran.
Over 3,100 US Physics Team hopefuls took the preliminary examination in January, and 200 were given a second exam in March to determine the top 24 students. Performance, attitude, creativity, initiative, and evidence of progress are the factors that determine who participates in the International Physics Olympiad, which will take place July 13-22.
The ten-day camp mirrors the international competition as the students are scored on exam and laboratory performance. Scores on the seven exams and four “mystery labs” are the largest factor in deciding which five will form the traveling team.
In addition to the evaluations, students attend lectures by coaches and guest physicists Jim Gates, Jordan Goodman, and Richard Berg. These crash-courses help to fill them in on topics that are not discussed in most high school physics classrooms but may appear on the exams they will see in competition. Included topics are waves, modern physics, special relativity, and thermodynamics.
The content of these lectures is tough, but the tone is informal and playful. Head coach Paul Stanley, in giving the students a rundown of what order of magnitude to expect when measuring atomic and subatomic lengths, admonished, “These are things you should know. Like the density of water. What’s the density of water?”
A few numbers were offered in reply, and Stanley answered the question, “One.”
“Depends on units,” a student from the front called out.
“Yes, it depends on units, but one works,” Stanley insisted.
“What’s the density of air, Paul,” smart-aleck coach Boris Zbarsky, graduate student in math at the University of Chicago, goaded from the back. His banter elicited laughter from the quicker students.
“One,” said Stanley.
According to student Jenny Kwan, a senior from California, lectures are made more enjoyable for the terrible puns and curious analogies used by the coaches. Her favorite was relativity in terms of monkeys and bananas, explained by coach Andrew Lin, a physics graduate of Yale University.
The mystery labs are truly challenging. The students walk into the room and are offered a bench full of equipment and a task. For example, on Monday they were given lasers and screens, among other equipment, with the mission of finding the thickness of their hair.
This lab, popular in undergraduate curriculum, required the high school students to use diffraction. They had only recently learned behaviors of light waves in a lecture the previous morning.
The laboratory is a highlight for most of the students. If they have lab experience at all, it was generally on poor equipment. Student Aleksandra Stankiewicz of Minneapolis delighted in the accuracy of the University of Maryland equipment, saying that her results helped correct her theoretical understanding.
The coaches enjoy the challenge of keeping up with the students. Stanley said that the students often connect with former participants and even learn problems from previous years. “They sneak up on us. They’re better every year.”
Robert Shurtz, academic director and physics teacher at Hawken School in Ohio, drew up the schedule according to the official syllabus given to each international team. He said the hardest part is “dealing with a fairly wide range of backgrounds.” Students are responsible for knowing mechanics, electricity, and magnetism ahead of time.
Warren Turner, laboratory coach and assistant professor at Westfield State College, discussed the unusual caliber of the US Physics Team students. “Most (high school) physics teachers see only one or two of these students in their careers. Here we see 24 every year.”
The coaches receive a modest honorarium for their efforts, but considering the long hours, the primary reward is sharing their knowledge of physics with these exceptionally talented, motivated, and interested students.
The camaraderie among students and coaches helps keep participants coming back year after year. Six of this year’s students went to physics camp last year, and some former participants, such as Zbarsky and Lin, return as coaches after graduating high school. Even the guest speakers at the closing ceremony, gold medalists from the late 1990s, remarked that it was “great to be back.”
Aside from near-complete immersion in physics, the students toured Capitol Hill, meeting some Senators and Representatives. They visited the Spy Museum as well, where Stanley, associate professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin, purchased an electrical pen to shock unsuspecting secretaries and reporters.
Other than such expeditions, their days were physics-filled from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 at night. During midday breaks, favorite activities included Frisbee and “mind games” such as the Settlers of Catan and Zendo.
The ten-day camp ended with a banquet on Friday, June 1st where the members of the traveling team were announced. The 2007 competitors are Kenan Diab, a senior from Hawken School in Ohio; Rui Hu, a junior from the Charter School of Wilmington in Delaware; Jenny Kwan, a senior from San Marcos High School in California; Jason Larue, a senior from Miami Palmetto Senior High; and Haofei Wei, a senior from Oklahoma School of Science and Math.
They will fly to Isfahan, Iran to match wits with the most promising young physicists worldwide. Last year’s team, competing in Singapore, brought home four gold medals and one silver.
The American Association of Physics Teachers is responsible for the identification of the team and organizing the training camp at the University of Maryland. They also sponsor the team and seek congressional funding with help from the American Institute of Physics. Apart from contributing through AIP membership, the APS makes a separate financial contribution to the US Physics Team.