Physics students gird for a global battle

American high-schoolers will test their physics prowess in Iran against teams from 70-plus nations.

Five of America's top young physics minds are scheduled to touch down in Iran in four days, and they're training up to the bitter end. The last three days have been spent holed up in the physics labs at the University of Maryland. They would emerge from five-hour study sessions only to eat and sleep.

The preparation was rigorous, but necessary. The Americans, with their counterparts from more than 70 other nations, will be going head-to-head with the Iranians on their own turf. But the last thing on the Americans' minds is politics. "We're going to do physics, hang out with several hundred other physics students, and then leave," says Jason LaRue, an incoming Harvard freshman from Miami, Fla.

Mr. LaRue is on the United States physics travel team which will compete against more than 300 secondary school students from around the world in the International Physics Olympiad. The weeklong event begins Friday, testing the students' physics prowess through written exams and hands-on experiments.

Isfahan, Iran, about 270 miles south of the capital, Tehran, is the site of this year's Olympiad. While tensions may be high between the US and Iran, the students and adults involved point out that science is not only universal, but also apolitical. Team member Jenny Kwan of San Mar­cos, Calif., will enter Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., this fall. She'll have to wear a head scarf in Iran. "It might be inconvenient," she says, "but for the traveling experience, I think it's worth it."

Ms. Kwan and Mr. LaRue are teaming with Kenan Diab of Westlake, Ohio, (he will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge this fall), Rui Hu of Newark, Del. (a high school senior), and Haofei Wei of Broken Arrow, Okla. (He will also attend MIT as a freshman.)

The team's journey to the Olympiad began last winter, when they were among more than 200 top-tier physics students (based on the results of a stiff exam) applying for one of the 24 slots on the US physics team. The team is chosen based on another exam, school transcripts, and letters of recommendation. In late May, the 24-member team met for the nine-day US Physics Team Training Camp. At its conclusion, the five-member travel team was selected.

Over the next month, the team worked at home on written exams from previous Olympiads. They came to­gether early this week to practice physics experiments before the competition.

This will be the 20th year that the US has sent a team. Last year, the American team brought home four gold medals and one silver, second behind China.

The first physics Olympiad was held in Warsaw in 1967 with students from Bulgaria, Czech­oslovakia, Hun­gary, Poland, and Romania. The organizers, three Central European physicists, were inspired by the International Mathe­matics Olympiad, which began in 1959.

This year, organizers expect 339 students from 76 nations. Rising participation in the Olympiad reflects a global rise in the number of students studying physics over the past 20 years. Physics combines scien­tific and mathematical principles to examine how the physical world works. It's critical to engineering of all kinds.

Even in the US, which continues to lag behind much of the industrialized world when it comes to participation and performance in math and the sciences, the number of students taking physics has seen "a slow but steady progression," says Michael Neuschatz, a senior research associate at the American Institute of Physics.

Between 1986 and 2005, the percentage of high school seniors in the US who have taken physics doubled and is now around 33 percent. A little less than half of those students are women.

Mr. Neuschatz predicts that percentage will double again within the next 20 years. Even so, he adds, this will still leave the US behind many other industrialized nations, where almost all secondary students take at least one year of physics.

Dr. Toufic Hakim, director of the American Association of Physics Teachers says rigid testing standards, poor funding, differing graduation standards, and unqualified teachers are among the reasons the US lags in physics worldwide. But the greater challenge is changing the perception that physics is just for elite students.

Dr. Hakim says the members of this year's team have an understanding of physics that rivals that of graduate-level students and "gives us hope that we can maintain leadership in science." However, he adds, "in a time of technology and globalization … we must as a nation be literate and competent in the sciences, and in physics in particular."

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