Ninth grader Phoebe Altenhofen releases her “winged egg” in the Egg Drop event during the Physics Olympics at Germantown Friends School’s Annual Science Night. (Photo by Laura Jamieson)

by Laura Jamieson

Olympic games take on a whole new meaning at Germantown Friends School’s annual Science Night. At the Physics Olympics Thursday evening, students, faculty, parents and community members shouted and cheered for the science Olympians.

“You usually have to be an athlete or performer to get that kind of response, but on this night the science nerd gets to be the hero,” said physics teacher Tracey Spinka.

The games are just one of the featured Science Night events, which also include biology experiments; chemistry concoctions of goo, foam and slime; high-tech presentations of test results; poster-board displays and a panel of experts discussing inequalities in access to health care.

Head of the Science Department Susan Robinson said the event is a great way for students to apply lessons learned in class.

“Science Night is an opportunity for students in grades 8-12 to apply what they have learned [this year] in their science courses,” she said. “Science is all about asking questions, performing research and analyzing data in order to draw a conclusion. Sometimes you can lose the true essence of science in the daily grind of delivering curriculum, so Science Night reminds us all of the true nature of science.”

The ninth graders spend nearly three weeks planning, designing, building and testing one of six different projects, which are put to the test at the Physics Olympics. In the physics lab, with less then a week before the Olympic games, there was a buzz in the air, along with the smells of hot glue and sawdust. Students huddled in small groups, hunched over balsa wood constructions, discussing, problem solving and rethinking designs.

“The students get very involved,” said physics teacher David Williamson. “They write a lot of papers, present projects and write lab reports, but they don’t get many long-term projects where they produce something. Hands-on work is so important, and high schools these days often neglect that.”

The projects include building light-weight wood towers that need to withstand the weight of sand bags added to a pail hanging from the top and constructing vehicles powered by mousetraps, balloons or a pulley. Students pass around masking tape, scissors, dowels, strings, straws, rubber bands and the other limited resources available to them to create their projects.

The older students remember their projects fondly and often stop by to check in on ninth graders, who are required to talk with former students to get advice. Even with the help, Williamson said the students come up with remarkable things.

“It’s still a surprise to see what the students come up with,” he said. “Even though the rules and the materials available to each group are exactly the same, the implementation is always totally different.”

The events also change from year to year. Some of them, like the mousetrap-powered car, are physics classics, but others require trial and error to perfect.

“It takes years to tweak the projects until they are really good,” Williamson said. “A good project has competing design features, so the students are balancing competing variables.”

When the traditional egg drop proved too simple, they changed it to a kite-based “winged egg,” which is scored for distance as well as for keeping the egg intact.

“The record from last year was 8.75 meters,” said Phoebe Altenhofen as she examined her kite.

“We just got 7.2 meters on our last test,” teammate Drew Meyer announced, “We’re going to break that record!”

Altenhofen agreed.

“Yeah, I think we will.” she said.

Williamson sees Science Night as an opportunity for students to push themselves to think outside the box – and to shine. The physics program uses many different types of assessment tests, lab work and homework, as well as the Olympics, and all of them require different thinking and learning styles.

“You’ll see some kids who haven’t done all that well in the traditional testing format really design something and make it work,” he said.

Conversely, teachers see students who test well but over analyze and over think their projects.

“They have to be willing to take risks,” Williamson said. “They have to be able to say, Okay, I’m going to try this and if it doesn’t work then I’m going to tear it apart and try it differently.”

A group working on a pulley-and-weight powered “Joule Mobile” experimented with the height of their car, added a bigger axel and made adjustments to add stability.

“We’ve had to experiment to find out what works and what doesn’t,” said Maddy Berg.

“We figured the car would go farther with a taller tower,” teammate Ned Weiss added.

Berg pointed out that a taller tower would be less stable.

“Yes, and the more mass the less acceleration,” teammate Jessica Lu said. But they all agree on one thing.

“This is much more fun than taking notes,” said Weiss. “I really enjoy the concepts of physics, but I’d rather be testing them than taking tests on them. It’s a great way to practice the theories that we learn.”

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