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Eggs, vectors and duct tape at Liberty High School, the 2019 Physics Olympics

Two eggs, 1 meter of duct tape, six McDonald’s straws, 50 grams of paper and some aluminum foil were all Francis Scott Key High School senior Maddie Rohde and her fellow students had to protect two eggs from breaking during a 4-meter drop from the Liberty High School cafeteria mezzanine Saturday.

They had a plan.

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“Our strategy here is to give it the most cushion,” Rohde said. “Because if you can increase the impulse time, it will decrease the amount of force at any second being put on the eggs when they hit on the ground, meaning they are less likely to break.”

“She’s very smart,” teammate and FSK sophomore Elizabeth Mahoney said of Rohde. “We’re going to miss her next year.”

This wasn’t just any old gathering of teenagers using calculus to inform their materially constrained design of a device to protect eggs from sudden deceleration, this was the Physics Olympics, a three-county — plus Baltimore City — throwdown around the principals of physics.

“This is my baby, been my baby for 27 years now,” said Tim Durkin, Liberty High School physics teacher and organizer of the Physics Olympics.

“Since it’s been 50 years since the Apollo landing, we chose that as our theme. So all the events are based on the missions we did in the ’60s and ’70s, the Apollo missions,” Durkin said. “Last year was particle physics. We did one one year on the ‘Harry Potter’ movies; we’ve done one year that was the ‘Star Trek’ movies; we did one one year that was based on the Winter Olympics. We try to change it every year.”

The egg drop was inspired by the lunar lander successfully delivering Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon’s surface, Durkin said, while six other events also engaged more than 70 small teams of high school students in tasks requiring physics knowledge and engineering skill. Tasks like creating a device to shoot ping pong balls into targets, an homage to Alan Shepard’s playing gold on the moon during Apollo 14, solving wild physics questions in the style of Enrico Fermi (“how much metal, in kilograms, was used in all three space missions: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo?”), or using CDs, pencils and duct tape to create a “rover” that can roll down a ramp, duct tape having gone to the moon, Durkin noted.

“In terms of the acronym STEM — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — they are running through the engineering process in each of the activities they are doing,” he said. “They have a problem to solve, they have to build a device to solve that problem, they have to demonstrate the device and, hopefully, they taste some success.”

Joe Loy, also a sophomore from FSK, said his team missed the taste of success on the egg drop.

“We kind of failed on that one. We made this origami fortune cookie, took the parts from those and made spikes from them,” he said. “That didn’t work. I think the mass from both of the eggs was just too much force.”

Speaking while his team worked hard to construct a rover that would roll down a ramp and farthest across the gym floor, Loy said that he liked the competition.

Loy’s was one of three teams from FSK at the Olympics. Rohde and Mahoney were part of FSK A. Liberty High School had four teams, South Carroll High School had two teams and Gerstell Academy four.

Boonsboro, Damascus, Good Counsel, River Hill, Walkersville and Wilde Lake high schools, among others, also fielded teams.

Each team cycled through all six events, trying to score the most points, with plaques going to the first, second and third place teams; and the winning school receiving $1,000, according to Durkin.

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By the end of the day, the cafeteria floor had seen many eggs scrambled. Nathan Murphy, of Liberty C, explained how he hoped his team could crack the code, and keep their eggs from ending up toast.

“It’s going to be entirely based on diffusing the energy away from the eggs, or absorbing energy before it gets to the egg, so it can’t break it, primarily by creating a triangle of straws of sorts,” Murphy, a sophomore, said. “Adding paper in tubular, cylinder shapes around to absorb energy before it gets to the eggs, and then straws will break down as the energy breaks them, but the eggs won’t crack.”

The end result looked something like a jack, a central vertex from which radiated cylinders of yellow construction paper.

“Ready!” someone called, and then Murphy dropped it. Seconds later came a muffled “smack,” but the team had to unwrap its device to know if that meant a crack.

“One broke,” Murphy said, disappointed but still smiling once the investigation was complete. “Our device did what it was supposed to do, just a little too much.”

Too much — or just enough. In the final tally, it was Boonsboro A in first, Arundel D in second and Liberty C in third.

FSK A did not win, but it wasn’t a total disappointment. Mahoney and the other sophomores all vowed to come back in 2010, and Rodhe came away with inspiration for the future.

“I am planning to get a Ph.D. in physics and do research,” she said. “Astrophysics I was thinking.”

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