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Physics Olympics 2014

Thursday, 27 February 2014

This year, sixteen Ogden Trust Partnership schools from Bolton and the surrounding area took part in the Physics Olympics, with each participating school sending four gifted and talented Year 9 pupils to take part.

This is the fourth year that the Physics Olympics has been run at Bolton School, and the event was once again a great success. The science department from Bolton School Boys’ Division planned and ran the physics challenges. However, the day could not have gone ahead without the added assistance of the Sixth Form volunteers from both the Boys’ and Girls’ Divisions, who helped out the Year 9s with their expertise and acted as adjudicators for each event.

Mr Ickringill, who is the resident Ogden IOP Physics Teacher Fellow at the Boys’ Division and organised the event, welcomed the Year 9s to the Physics Olympics. “We’re really pleased to see so many people here,” he said. “What you’re here to do is compete in various physics competitions, and have fun!”

Each team was then given a name taken from a well-known physicist, and from Archimedes and Aristotle, through Newton, Volta and Ohm, right up to Hubble and Hawking, all eras and types of physics were represented. The Year 9s were then sent to one of the various physics challenges set up in the Boys’ Division science laboratories, where they had 30 minutes to complete each task, often with added limits on the number of recorded attempts allowed. There were also strict instructions that no assistance from visiting teachers was allowed – although Bolton School staff and sixth formers could be called upon to offer hints and advice. So there was a definite competitive atmosphere once the Physics Olympics officially began!

One of the tasks was called 'Bullseye'. This asked the Year 9s to build and launch an air-powered rocket at a target five metres away, with 20 bonus points available if the team could also fire the rocket through a hoop suspended from the ceiling. With only three attempts allowed, this was one of the most challenging tasks of the day! However, several teams did manage to bag the bonus and hit the target, proving that it was not impossible.

'Jelly Baby Towers' asked the pupils to build a structure to support a boiled egg as high as possible above the ground, using only a packet of spaghetti and a bag of jelly babies. To add to the difficulty, the egg had to remain supported for 10 seconds before any measurements could be taken. The only hint the pupils were given was that the spaghetti was prone to buckling, and would require cross-bracing to strengthen the structure. Although the time-limit got the better of some teams, who spent too long planning their building projects, this task also led to some very inventive and successful towers.

Another of the tasks which tested the students’ construction skills was 'Sink or Swim', where they had to build a boat from two pieces of card and two plastic wallets, and then fill it with as many marbles as it could hold without sinking. The team with the highest mass of marbles would be the overall winners – but with only five adjudicated attempts allowed, and the risk that the attempt would not count if the boat sank or touched the side of the water container before the judge arrived, this was easier said than done! There were quite a few disasters as teams pushed their luck and tried just one more marble – only to cause their boat to capsize, and lose one of their tries. However, the event also saw some impressively full boats bobbing low in the water but remaining afloat.

'Delayed Timing' tasked the Year 9s with constructing a pathway for a marble on a sloping board so that it took the longest possible time to get from the top to the bottom, without stopping at any point. Each team was given plenty of items to help delay the marble: wooden blocks, several sheets of cardboard, a set of ten 100g masses, and plenty of blue tack and masking tape to hold everything in place. There were also ten additional points to be won if the team managed to turn one light on and another off during the course of the marble’s run. Again there was a maximum of five adjudicated attempts for this challenge, so the teams conducted plenty of trial runs first to ensure that they had the slowest possible time. The teams all constructed very different maze-like paths for the marble to wend its way down, slowing it significantly to give themselves the best possible time. There were also some very creative ideas for how to switch the lights on and off!

The final event was 'Rainbow Babies'. Bolton School’s lab technicians had knitted a whole family of rainbow-outfitted dolls, each one with a different mass hidden inside. The pupils then had to calculate the combined mass of three dolls, using a stand, a spring, a stop-clock, and a set of 100g masses. They were also given graph paper to allow them to plot a calibration graph, with mass on one axis and either the time for oscillations or the length of the stretched spring on the other. This was one of the students’ favourite tasks, with the cute rainbow babies bobbing up and down on springs to provide amusement but the physics remaining a challenge.

Throughout the morning, the pupils were also asked to complete a quiz, which was one of the toughest parts of the day as it really tested their knowledge and ability to answer tough questions on the subject.

At the end of the day, the scores from each event were tallied up and the overall winners were announced: the Geiger team from Turton High School, who received podium positions on the Rainbow Babies, Delayed Timing and Jelly Baby Towers events. Bolton School Boys’ Division came in second place after placing strongly in the Sink or Swim challenge and Fermi Quiz, and Sharples High School were ranked third.

However, it was a very closely fought competition, with 12 separate teams achieving first, second or third place in at least one activity.

Regardless of whether they won or lost, all of the Year 9s had a great time taking part in the Physics Olympics. The six events stretched their knowledge of all aspects of physics. Each one also allowed them to have fun with physics, proved that it is an interesting and engaging subject, and hopefully encouraged them to continue to study it to GCSE and beyond.

Mr Ickringill said of the event, “It's been a great day for further stimulating interest in Physics. The pupils have been asked to think and learn but the practical tasks they have been set have been fun and have really engaged them with the subject matter, showing them how Physics is applied to real life situations. There has been a real buzz as pupils and teachers have enjoyed spending the day surrounded by fellow enthusiasts.  I would like to offer my thanks to the teachers involved in making today such a success and to our own Sixth Form students who have been a great help throughout the day.”

The Physics Olympics was made possible thanks to funding from the Ogden Trust and the Institute of Physics.

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One of the teams prepares to launch their rocket during Bullseye

One of the teams prepares to launch their rocket during Bullseye

The impressive towers had to be strong as well as tall

The impressive towers had to be strong as well as tall

A team takes careful measurements to calculate the Rainbow Babies

A team takes careful measurements to calculate the Rainbow Babies' mass