Students achieve success in STEM contests, qualifying for Olympiad rounds

March 24, 2023 — by Victoria Hu
Photo by Victoria Hu
An advertisement for the US National Chemistry Olympiad is written on the board in chemistry teacher Janny Cahatol’s room.
As some competitions transition to online platforms, participation in the AMC math contest series, F=ma and USABO remains high while USNCO was rescheduled due to test leaks.

Like past years, dozens of students participated in STEM contests hosted by the school’s clubs, with some qualifying for prestigious Olympiad rounds. 

The school’s math club hosted the American Mathematics Competitions (AMC 10/12) in mid-November; qualifiers then took the American Invitational Mathematics Exam (AIME) on Feb. 7. Science club also hosted the preliminary USA Biology Olympiad (USABO) online open exam on Feb. 2 and the F=ma physics exam on Feb. 9. 

Results for many of these competitions were released in early March. Of the 50 students who qualified for AIME from the AMC 10/12, 11 were invited to take the USA Junior Mathematics Olympiad (USAJMO) or USA Mathematics Olympiad (USAMO) near the end of March. Six students qualified for the USA Physics Olympiad (USAPhO) from F=ma, and seven qualified for USABO semifinals.

Registration for the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad (USNCO) local round is ongoing; as of March 6, there are six signups out of 32 available spots. The test was originally scheduled to be held March 28, but then temporarily canceled after problems were leaked. It has since been rescheduled, to be held four days later on April 1 from 1 to 3 p.m. in chemistry teacher Janny Cahatol’s room. 

School sees unusually high number of AIME qualifiers 

The AMC math contest series consists of several rounds of testing, beginning with the AMC 10/12, which consists of two 75-minute, 25-question multiple choice tests held in November. Around 5% of competitors nationwide then qualify to take the AIME — a challenging 3-hour, 15-question exam. 

According to junior math club treasurer Advaith Avadhanam, of the 80 students who took the AMC contests, 50 advanced to take AIME — compared to around 30 to 40 in the last few years.

“It’s nice to see how well Saratoga does,” he said. “AIME only takes around 5,000 kids annually, so our one high school gets 1% of representation.”

Scores for the AMC and AIME contests came out earlier than usual due to this year’s new online portal, which allowed local contest managers — assistant principal Matt Torrens for AMC and guidance department chair Brian Safine for AIME — to scan students’ Scantrons and automatically grade their answers online. In past years, Scantrons were mailed in. 

While Avadhanam noted that it was somewhat of a logistical hassle to help set up the system and chase down individual students for online registration and payments, he feels that the instant grading is a net positive.

“This was a completely new system that’s a lot more localized and requires area coordinators to take more individual responsibility,” he said. “It was a little bit more logistically complicated to implement and there was definitely a learning curve to figure it out. But we got the job done.”

Cutoffs for the next round, the USA(J)MO, were released on March 9. Of the 50 students who took AIME, six students — Redwood Middle eighth-graders Andy Lu and Vivian Zhong, freshman Lawson Wang and sophomores Ishani Agarwal, Alan Lu and Skyler Mao — qualified through the AMC 10 to take the USAJMO. In addition, five upperclassmen — juniors Avadhanam, Victoria Hu and Nikhil Mathihalli and seniors Nilay Mishra and Anthony Wang — were invited to take the USAMO, out of around 500 students total nationwide. 

The exam is a proof contest and was administered March 21 to 22, consisting of six problems to be solved across two days. Students who perform exceptionally well have the opportunity to attend the nation’s summer training camp, which then selects and trains a team to represent the U.S. in the International Mathematics Olympiad.

High achievers shine in science exams

For the science exams, registration has remained consistent with past years, according to senior science club vice president Isha Goswami. Nineteen students signed up for the USABO Online Open Exam, which was proctored by biology teacher Cheryl Lenz on Feb. 2 in her room. Students logged into the Art of Problem Solving (AoPS) site to access the fast paced 50 minute multiple choice exam.

“I think it’s really cool that Saratoga offers these tests,” Goswami said. “It motivates people to learn more about subjects like biology than their classes might teach. It’s encouraging for them to study for these tests and perform well on them.”

Seven of the school’s test takers performed within the top 10% of the country, making them eligible to take the USABO Online Semifinal Exam on March 16 — nearly double the number of last year’s four qualifiers. They are freshman Ethan Pan, sophomore Grace Liu, juniors Avadhanam, Emily Hung, Grace Li and Alyssa Liu and senior Lisa Fung.

After taking this 2-hour exam, if they place within the top 20 finalists across the entire country, they will have the chance to attend the biology summer training program and compete for one of four spots representing the U.S. at the International Biology Olympiad in July. 

Another 33 students signed up to take F=ma, a 75-minute multiple choice exam focusing on algebra-based mechanics held and proctored by physics teacher Matthew Welander in his room. The top 400 students across the country were then invited to take USAPhO, a 3-hour free response test that will be hosted on April 4, covering all introductory physics topics such as electricity and magnetism in addition to mechanics. 

Among the nation’s top 400 are six Saratoga students: sophomore Alan Lu, juniors Avadhanam, Arinjay Basak, Medha Ravi and Aiden Ye as well as senior Anthony Wang.

“I’m really proud and thankful that I qualified for USAPhO,” Ravi said. “I was pleasantly surprised, given that the cutoff [of 18/25] was relatively high this year.”

Ravi began learning the concepts and topics needed for F=ma during winter break, and sat down to seriously prepare around two weeks before the exam date. She said she feels extremely grateful for her father, who spent a minimum of 3 hours daily after work to help pick out problems from scores of textbooks and work with her through difficult topics. She recalls how she studied for 6 hours straight two days before the test, only stopping for a quick coffee run with her dad.

Now, she is studying for USAPhO in the remaining month before the test. She hopes to understand what topics are behind the problems in USAPhO and looks forward to seeing what areas of physics the test writers can merge in the questions.

“Looking back, [preparing for F=ma] was a really fun experience, even though I doubted myself every step of the way,“ Ravi said. “I’m looking forward to taking USAPhO and my goal is to just have fun with the questions.”

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