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‘The idea is to get kids excited about physics and science’: Physics Olympics draws more than 250 students

When your goal is to build a pyramid from marbles, fettucine and masking tape and you can’t tape the marbles to the table, it’s not an easy task.

Five students from Francis Scott Key High School joined some 50 teams from 20 schools to complete this assignment and five others at 28th Annual Central Maryland Physics Olympics at Liberty High School on Saturday.

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“I did this two years ago when pasta wasn’t a part of it,” said FSK’s Madeline Schiari. “Pasta is not very structurally sound. Since we are working with a structurally unsound material and something that won’t stay in place, this is a difficult challenge.”

For this team, it wasn’t the first rodeo. All members had competed in past years.

"Originally, we thought the pyramid had to be made entirely of marbles,” teammate Mason Francisco said. “Then we found out the pyramid can be freestanding from the marbles. As long as you have at least one marble inside the structure, I guess it counts.”

Mina Rohde laughed.

“We quickly realized we could not build a pyramid of only marbles,” she said.

The team discussed how to get more height by using less of those pesky marbles.

“I have no idea why the marbles were there,” Joe Loy said. “They were like a red herring, just rolling around and being a pain.”

Across the room, Liberty High School students faced the same issue. Student Brady Egleston said they decided to use just one marble.

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“We had some success with it,” he said. “We had a medium-sized pyramid, so we’ll probably score somewhere in the middle.”

Teammate, Josh Bellovos agreed.

“This challenge was a bit harder than the others, but I think we managed to do okay,” he said.

Hayden Woodard said it was important for them to do well.

“We came in third place last year and we are hoping to improve on that,” the Liberty High School student said.

Liberty High School Physics instructor, Tim Durkin started the Physics Olympics 28 years ago, after pitching the idea at a meeting of 10 physics teachers.

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“That first year was very successful. About 98 kids came to compete. Twenty-eight years later, we’re still doing it. We have 258 students competing today,” he said, noting that schools from seven counties and Baltimore City were taking part. “The emphasis is to try and get students interested in majoring in a STEM field and to possibly go onto a career in a STEM field.”

Interest was high for competing students.

“You learn things at school, and you don’t really understand how they apply to real life,” said Kate Maerten from Gerstell Academy. “Then you come to a competition like this and you apply them, and it is just a lot of fun doing it.”

Gerstell’s Nafisah Akim-Shittu agreed, laughing with her teammates.

“We are a great group. Nothing is really a challenge for us,” she said. “We come back every year to show the competition who’s boss. It is just a lot of fun, hanging out with your friends and solving problems together. This is my favorite competition.”

Durkin said students receive rules for three of the events in advance.

“But we keep three events a total mystery until the students arrive,” he said. “The students can practice the events I send out, but nothing is made in advance. All of the challenges are completed during the events.”

For FSK’s Loy, the competition was right up his ally.

“I like to make something out of nothing,” he said. “If it is effective, at the end of the day I can say that I applied my knowledge to everyday items, and made it work.”

Rohde focused on meshing as a team.

“I think a lot of things can be done faster when we work as a team,” she said.

Others agreed.

“Having a team is an opportunity to have multiple perspectives,” Schiari said. “You can actually combine the perspectives of five people for a team perspective.”

Daniel Dreyer wasn’t completely convinced.

“Multiple people having different ideas can sometimes be too much,” he said. “Conflicting ideas can slow you down.”

Mason Francisco found the truth somewhere in the middle.

“Having conflicting ideas can slow you down, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “It’s just something you have to balance out.”

Durkin said he could never put on an event like this, without teamwork.

“I have a team of a dozen physics teachers who help formulate the events and rules, and then serve as chief judges for the individual events,” he said. “The Maryland Space Business Roundtable is an organization of space based industries in Maryland and every they generously provide us with the funding to hold the Olympics. They help pay for the T-shirts, and they pay for the plaques for the top three place holders and honor the winning school with a check for $1000. The winning team is also honored at their spring banquet. Their support has been fantastic over the years and it helps provide an incentive for the participants."

A team from Mount Hebron accumulated the most points Saturday. The South Carroll A team was the top finisher among Carroll County squads. But this much more than a competition.

The energy the kids bring to the event is what Durkin said keeps him going.

“The idea is to get kids excited about physics and science," he said. "As we continue to move forward as a society, we need people trained to become our next set of researchers and problem solvers.”

Boonsboro High School instructor, Ralph von Philp sees that excitement in his pupils.

“It always amazes me that this many students come out on a Saturday to compete in a physics event,” von Philp said. “I don’t even give my kids extra credit to come. They practice after school, they are here, and they don’t even get a grade or extra credit to do it.”

TEAM RESULTS

Mt. Hebron B 1,950, Arundel A 1,765, Long Reach A 1,760, Northwest B 1720, Middletown A 1,715, Northwest D 1,690, Northwest C 1,655, Bethesda-CC B 1,645, Middletown B 1,645, Northwest A 1,645 Boonsboro B 1,575, Hereford B 1,575, South Carroll A 1,550, Gerstell A 1,540, Loyola B 1,450, Stone Ridge B 1,430, Arundel B 1,385, Mt. Hebron A 1,375, Bethesda-CC C 1,345, Liberty B 1,330, River Hill B 1,320, Loyola D 1,295, River Hill A 1,270, Bethesda-CC A 1,220, Boonsboro A 1,185, Liberty C 1,180, Paint Branch B 1,175, Damascus A 1,130, Southern B 1,110, Boonsboro C 1,050, Loyola A 1,040 Stone Ridge 1,035, Paint Branch A 1,025, Southern A 1,005, Francis Scott Key A 995, Hereford A 940, Stone Ridge C 920, Oldfields B 890, Liberty A 880, Loyola C 845, Oldfields A 815, Long Reach B 780, Gerstell C 745, Gerstell B 730, Stone Ridge D 465.

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