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May 27, 2009 > Fremont students prep for international physics contest

Fremont students prep for international physics contest

Submitted By Marilyn Gardner

Sophomore Bowei Liu and senior Marianna Mao from Mission San Jose High School are two of the country's 19 best and brightest physics students sitting in a classroom, gritting their teeth against the screech of Professor Paul Stanley's chalk. He bears down on the chalkboard and offers the teens a challenge.

"You can calculate how long this piece of chalk is by measuring the frequency [pitch] of the squeak," says Stanley. When the chalk snaps a moment later, he explains that the pitch of the ultrasonic sound of the break can be determined from the sizes of the leftover fragments.

These high school students - who have a penchant for wearing MIT t-shirts - banter about how they would perform the calculations. They are the U.S. Physics Team and gathered last week from across the country to train for the 40th Annual International Physics Olympiad. They spent 13 hours a day at the University of Maryland in fast-paced lecture classes and hands-on labs that challenged the depth and breadth of their knowledge of physics.

To make it this far, the team members scored better than 4,000 other students on three exams that tested their knowledge of theoretical physics.

"To do well, you have to be the kind of person who likes sitting up at night with physics textbooks just because it's the most fun thing to do," says Andrew Lin, who competed on the U.S. team twice and has coached the team for nine years.

Five students will be chosen to represent the U.S. in the international competition, in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, from July 12-19. The U.S. team will compete against teams from around the world to solve three theoretical problems and one experimental problem drawn from a wide range of physics fields. Past problems have included everything from the application of physics to automobile air bags and spacecraft to abstract questions about relativity and mechanics. Last year, the U.S. team won one silver medal and four gold medals.

Their boot camp training for the event included time in a laboratory. "The experimental side is similar to what they do in their high schools, but we give them something that pushes them a little further," says Warren Turner, head lab coach. Instead of simply measuring the motion of a pendulum, for example, the students develop their own mathematical models to take into account and predict the nuances of the swinging bob.

The week wasn't all work. Whether debating if alternative energy schemes inspired by science fiction novels would actually work or wiggling their arms in the "vector dance," the gathering was an opportunity for the teens to get to know each other.

"I get to meet cool people who are interested in the same crazy things that I am," says Joshua Oreman of Harvard Westlake School in North Hollywood, who brought home a gold medal at last year's competition in Iran.

The camp schedule included field trips to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC and to NASA's Goddard Space Laboratory in Greenbelt, MD.

The demographics of the bunch were fairly representative of a slice of the physics community at large. They were a mix of public and private school students and a mix of ethnicities, with about half being of Asian descent. Only three of the students are female.

But when asked whether these students were representative of his colleagues in physics, coach David Fallest of North Carolina University shook his head. "These students are special and amazing ... the level of enthusiasm is not what I see in Ph.D students. They're the cream of the crop, interested in every aspect of the subject."

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