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Friday, September 29, 2023

Gainesville physics prodigies strive toward Physics Olympics

High school students wait for exam results

The U.S. Physics Olympiad, or USAPhO, is a high school physics competition that started in 1986 in which students are tested on the mechanics and applications of physics concepts.
The U.S. Physics Olympiad, or USAPhO, is a high school physics competition that started in 1986 in which students are tested on the mechanics and applications of physics concepts.

When Buchholz High School student Ahan Mishra received a physics book titled “Introduction to Classical Mechanics” in the mail, he wondered how it made its way to his doorstep when school was out for the summer and Newton’s laws of motion were the last thing on his mind. 

The American Association of Physics Teachers often gives this book to aspiring physics talent, and Mishra, 17, was in the top 50 highest scores at the U.S. Physics Olympiad. But it still wasn’t enough to get him a gold medal. As a senior, he has returned to the competition striving to do even better.

“Hopefully this is one of the high points I remember,” Mishra said.

The U.S. Physics Olympiad, or USAPhO, is a high school physics competition that started in 1986 in which students are tested on the mechanics and applications of physics concepts. The goal of the competition is to select the team to represent the U.S. at the International Physics Olympiad, or IPhO.

There are two tests involved for the selection process.

The first is the F=ma test, a test focused on mechanics. Physics mechanics calculates and studies the relationships between force, matter and motion. This 25-question, multiple-choice test must be completed in 75 minutes.

After the test is scored, approximately the top 400 students will move to the next step — taking the U.S. Physics Team exam. 

Last year, Buchholz High School had 16 students qualify for the second exam, the most from any high school in the nation.

The USAPhO exam is a three-hour free response exam. Students can be tested on anything from mechanics to magnetism. 

Once that exam is graded, medals are awarded to the highest scorers. 

The top 20 gold medalists will be invited to be a part of the U.S. Physics Team. Those students will travel to the University of Maryland to attend a 10-day training camp where five students will be selected to represent the U.S. at the IPhO. 

Though no student from Buchholz made it to the top 20 last year, the school had 10 medalists, the most from any high school in the U.S. 

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Marc Moody, Buchholz physics teacher and science team coach, said he’s beyond proud of his student’s achievements. Student success is how he measures his own.

“No matter what level you're teaching, what you want is to see your students do really well,” said Moody, 37. “When you're a teacher, your product is the success of your students.”

When the results for last year’s exam came out and the school knew how many students qualified, the energy was electric, he said.

“It was like pandemonium in the room, which is a really weird reaction to have to answers being posted to a physics test,” Moody said.

Moody has been teaching at Buchholz for seven years and when he first started it was very rare for students to attempt the tests. When he asked his AP Physics 2 students whether they would be interested, they responded in a resounding “No.”

But the next year, he was devoted to getting some of his students involved. It was a big challenge to learn the material and to learn how to teach the material, Moody said. But they were able to have a few qualifiers. 

After that, the momentum grew. 

“Other students could look up to those previous qualifiers and they seemed to acquire a sense of belief,” he said. “It was a challenge of going, ‘I can see it. I know a couple of people that have qualified already and now I see it as possible.’”

He believes they have the ability to win a gold medal or even progress to the next level this year. Doing so, he said, will help inspire the next generation of students.

“It's a very rare achievement, but it's nice for them to believe that some things are possible instead of saying, ‘Oh, that's way too difficult,’” Moody said. 

But Buchholz isn’t the only local high school with qualifying students. 

Yoo Min Koh is the sole qualifier from Gainesville High School and has always had a passion for physics, he said. By high school, he was already well versed in mechanics and other physics concepts. He took AP Physics 1 in the seventh grade and AP Physics 2 in eighth grade. As a sophomore, he is in Calculus-based Physics.

“I just find it so intriguing how you can model the world by just equations,” Koh, 15, said. “It's really inspiring to see how far science has come and it just drives me forward.

Like Mishra, Koh also qualified for the USAPhO last year, but felt like he lacked skills in calculus vital to the USAPhO exam. This year, he feels much more confident thanks to the help of his teacher, Keith Watts, who dubs himself “the one unit of power you’re not allowed to forget” in reference to his last name.

Watts has taught at Gainesville High School for 17 years and is impressed at Koh’s level. 

In all his years of teaching at Gainesville High, he has only seen three qualifiers come out of the school, he said. Two of them were Koh. 

Watts does not have his own children, so he considers his students as his kids. Seeing Koh accomplish what he wouldn’t have even attempted sparks newfound levels of pride.

“It's just absolutely astonishing to me to see how intuitive he is about physics,” Watts said. 

Where many other students may be confused at first and take several tries to understand some physics lessons, Koh would simply be nodding his head in full understanding.

“Someone who just gets it like that — that is so unbelievably rare,” Watts said.

Mishra and Koh took the USAPhO exam April 4, and now all they and the other qualifiers around Gainesville and the country can do is wait. 

However, as a senior, Mishra has another big decision coming up — where to go to college. He plans to study computer science and has already been accepted to Cornell, Georgia Tech, the University of Texas in Austin and University of California Los Angeles. Whether he makes it to the top 20 this year, he’s still looking forward to what’s to come. 

“I'm still very excited about where physics can take me,” Mishra said.

Contact Aubrey at Follow her on Twitter @aubreyyrosee.

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Aubrey Bocalan

Aubrey Bocalan is a third-year journalism major. She is also pursuing a double major in Art. When she isn't writing, she's probably watching TV with her dog, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore Bocalan.

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