Physics Olympiad: Should You Participate?

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Are you wondering whether participating in a physics olympiad could enrich your life and further your goals? What exactly is a physics olympiad, anyway? Can anyone participate?

In this article, we’ll tell you all about the USA Physics Olympiad and the International Physics Olympiad. By the end, you’ll know whether this path is worth pursuing… or if you’re better off putting your energy elsewhere. Let’s dive in!

USA Physics Olympiad

The Physics Olympiad is a national competition for high school students who excel at physics exams. In the United States we have the USA Physics Olympiad, often referred to as USAPhO.

The top twenty participants are invited to a ten-day study camp at the University of Maryland, where they can focus all of their attention on preparing for the notoriously difficult International Physics Olympiad. The best students from the twenty (up to five) will be chosen for the traveling team. After three more days of intense study, these students will continue on to the International Physics Olympiad. 

The selection process begins with an exam called the F=ma, named for Newton’s second law of motion. This law states that the rate of change of the momentum of an object is equal in both magnitude and direction to the force imposed on it. The equation stands for Force equals mass times acceleration. 

What does the F=ma exam cover?

About six thousand students take the F=ma exam each year. Students are allowed 75 minutes to answer the exam’s 25 questions, which focus on algebra-based mechanics. Out of these six thousand, approximately four hundred will be invited to take the USA Physics Olympiad exam. 

Top students will then compete in the USA Physics Olympiad, which helps narrow down that year’s candidates to the students most likely to excel in the International Physics Olympiad. 

What topics does the USA Physics Olympiad cover?

Unlike the F=ma exam, which is made up of multiple choice questions, the USA Physics Olympiad exam is free response. Questions are calculus-based and cover a wide range of topics. All USAPhO qualifiers receive certificates of recognition for their physics skill, which is an impressive addition to any college application even if they don’t progress to the next phase.

Here are some of the main topics covered by the USAPhO:

  • Mechanics
    • Mechanics is the area of mathematics and physics concerned with the relationships between force, matter, and motion among physical objects. 
  • Thermodynamics
    • Thermodynamics is a branch of physics that deals with heat, work, and temperature, and their relation to energy, entropy, and the physical properties of matter and radiation
  • Electromagnetism
    • Electromagnetism is a branch of physics involving the study of the electromagnetic force, a type of physical interaction that occurs between electrically charged particles.
  • Relativity
    • Special relativity applies to all physical phenomena in the absence of gravity. General relativity explains the law of gravitation and its relation to other forces of nature.
  • Nuclear physics
    • Nuclear physics is the field of physics that studies atomic nuclei and their constituents and interactions, in addition to the study of other forms of nuclear matter.
  • Atomic physics
    • Atomic physics is the field of physics that studies atoms as an isolated system of electrons and an atomic nucleus. Atomic physics typically refers to the study of atomic structure and the interaction between atoms.
  • Particle physics
    • Particle physics or high energy physics is the study of fundamental particles and forces that constitute matter and radiation. 
  • Waves
    • In physics, mathematics, and related fields, a wave is a propagating dynamic disturbance of one or more quantities. Waves can be periodic, in which case those quantities oscillate repeatedly about an equilibrium value at some frequency.
  • Optics
    • Optics is the branch of physics that studies the behavior and properties of light, including its interactions with matter and the construction of instruments that use or detect it. Optics usually describes the behavior of visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light
  • Data analysis
    • Data analysis in Physics is a process of organizing and analyzing experimental data to validate a hypothesis or theory. It is an important part of the scientific method and requires students to demonstrate high competencies in key scientific skills.

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American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT)

The USA Physics Olympiad is sponsored by the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Institute of Physics. 

The American Association of Physics Teachers was founded in 1930. Their mission was the “dissemination of knowledge of physics, particularly by way of teaching.” Today there are over ten thousand members. They publish two peer-reviewed journals, The Physics Teacher and the American Journal of Physics.

The stated goals of the US Physics Team are as follows:

  • encourage excellence in physics education and reward outstanding physics students
  • provide a meaningful scientific and cultural experience for team members, including opportunities to network and meet new people, learn in intellectual and experiential ways, and gain international exposure
  • win medals and compete successfully on an international level
  • expand awareness of and participation in the program

Important Dates

The F=ma registration deadline for 2022 is January 21st. The exam takes place in February, and the subsequent USAPhO exam is held in April. The top twenty participants will be invited to the U.S. Physics Team Training Camp at the University of Maryland in June.

For a complete list of dates, see the U.S. Physics Team website.

Who’s eligible for the F=ma exam?

To take the F=ma exam, students must be either U.S. Citizens, U.S. Permanent Residents (Green Card holders), or currently attending a U.S. school. The same applies to the USAPhO exam. Prospective participants must also be located in the U.S. to take the USAPhO exam.

Students also need to be younger than twenty; they cannot turn twenty before June 30 of that year. They must be available to attend the U.S. Physics Team training camp. Students are not permitted to attend the training camp more than once.

The exams must be proctored and are generally taken at high schools. Homeschooled students are advised to contact the high schools nearest them; community colleges and universities may be another possibility. Libraries are sometimes allowed to proctor the exam as well. Parents or relatives of homeschooled students are not allowed to act as their proctors. 

What do students gain from participating in USAPhO?

Participating students have the opportunity to network and meet new people, and the best of the best will go on to compete internationally. Here is a sampling of what students have said after participating in the Physics Team Training Camp:

  • “During those days in Maryland, I was given a tremendous opportunity to see into the heart of the physics community. I listened to respected researchers discuss their work. More importantly, I felt myself reaching the limits of my abilities, of my intelligence.”
  • “I enjoyed being with all these smart people who think the way I do.”
  • “I enjoyed meeting new people with similar interests and spending time with them playing games and talking.”
  • “It was great solving interesting problems with interesting people.”

International Physics Olympiad

The International Physics Olympiad is similar to the USA Physics Olympiad, but it includes only the best of the best: up to five pre-university students from each country are chosen to compete at an international level each year. It’s a nine-day competition that is hosted in a different city each year.

The first International Physics Olympiad was held in Poland in 1967. It was inspired by the International Mathematical Olympiad, which was established eight years prior. Subsequent International Physics Olympiads have been held all over the world. Over the next four years, the International Physics Olympiad is slated to be held in Japan, Iran, France, and Columbia. 

Competitors are selected on a national level, with up to five student competitors and two leaders per country. These student competitors compete individually, with each student completing a theoretical examination that lasts five hours and another five-hour practical examination that may include one or two laboratory exams. 

Participants who score in the top eight percent are awarded gold medals, with a special prize going to the competitor with the highest score. Students in the top 25% receive silver medals, and students in the top 50% receive bronze. 

The United States competed for the first time in London in 1986 and is currently ranked fifth in the world, after China, South Korea, Russia, and Taiwan.

More Options for Students Who Love Physics

If you’re passionate about physics but don’t make the cut of the F=ma exam, there are still plenty of other avenues to explore. Your school may have a physics club that tackles fun projects like walking on water. Here are some more ways to pursue your passion. 

High School Physics Photo Contest 

The AAPT High School Physics Photo Contest is an international competition for high school students.  For many years this contest has provided teachers and students an opportunity to learn about the physics behind natural and contrived situations by creating visual and written illustrations of various physical concepts.  Students compete in an international arena with more than 1,000 of their peers for recognition and prizes.

Physics Bowl 

The PhysicsBowl Contest is an international high school competition. School teams compete regionally with other school teams. Students will take a 40-question, 45-minute timed, multiple-choice test under their school’s supervision.

The exam is normally given between March and April each year. Exam questions are based on topics and concepts covered in a typical high school physics course.

To enhance the distribution of awards, Division I is for first-year physics students, and Division II is for second-year physics students. Each Division has 15 regions that have been established across the country to allow schools in each region to compete against one another. Specialized math and science schools compete in their own region.

If your high school has physics as an option, ask your teacher if they will host a PhysicsBowl!

Physics and College

Colleges are interested in students who pursue their passions, display their unique skills, and commit to activities long term. 

If you love science and physics, participating in the Physics Olympiad or other contests through the AAPT is a great way to display your passion and interest in science. Another perk is that students who participate also can be considered for grants and scholarships pertaining to physics to put towards obtaining their college degree. 

If physics continues to be a passion of yours into college there are great ways to stay connected to physics, like the University Physics Competition here

Conclusion: Is the Physics Olympiad Right For You?

So… is the USA Physics Olympiad right for you? 

If you’re a math whiz who’s passionate about physics, the physics olympiads are a worthwhile goal. If nothing else, you can choose to challenge yourself by signing up for the F=ma exam. You have nothing to lose, and just preparing for the exam will be excellent preparation for your college physics courses.

We wish you the best of luck!

Join the Conversation 

Have you taken the F=ma exam or participated in the USA Physics Olympiad? We would love to hear about your experience! Tell us what you thought of it all.

If you have any further questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section below. 

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