Students partake in prestigious physics and math contests

April 25, 2019 — by Christine Zhang

Five students out of the 34 who took the annual F=ma physics contest in January qualified for the semifinal round of the United States of America Physics Olympiad (USAPhO), administered by AP Physics teacher Kirk Davis on April 2.

Sophomore Rohan Kumar, juniors Nevin Liang and Jeffrey Xu and seniors Joey Li and Michael Zhang were excused from their third and fifth periods that day to participate in the contest. They were five of the approximately 400 high school students across the nation to be invited to take the exam. Results are expected to come out mid-May.

The USAPhO consists of two 90-minute sections, the first with four problems and the second with two problems. These challenging problems generally involve deriving certain expressions in topics such as electricity and relativity. Last year, around 10 students qualified for the USAPhO.

Li, who took the USAPhO in his sophomore, junior and senior years, was not happy with his performance on this year’s test. Nonetheless, he said that it was similar in style to previous years’ tests.

“Every year, there’s a mechanics problem and it’s the simplest problem in the entire competition,” Li said. “I screwed up the mechanics problem this year, but the test was the same difficulty.”

Numerous math competitions, administered by math club advisor Andrew Shoemaker, have also been taking place on campus. Students qualified from the AMC 10 and 12 tests on Feb. 7 and Feb. 13 to take the American Invitational Mathematics Exam (AIME) on March 13. Through AIME, six students from Saratoga High qualified for the final round of the AMC contest series, the USA Junior Mathematical Olympiad for students who took the AMC 10 and USA Mathematical Olympiad for the AMC 12.

On April 17 and 18, Kumar took the USAJMO while juniors Howard Tang and Brandon Wang as well as seniors Catherine Wu and Zhang took the USAMO. Junior Nevin Liang qualified for the USAMO but opted out of taking the test. Approximately 250 high school students in the U.S. were invited to take each of the two tests, and the results of these exams are expected to be released mid-May as well.

The test consisted of three problems per testing day. This contest was administered in the research center for four and a half hours on each testing day, totaling to six problems over nine hours. Many of the problems are proof-based in topics such as combinatorics and number theory.

Wang, a national-level math competitor who has qualified for either the USAJMO or USAMO since eighth grade, said that this year’s test was much easier than last year’s.

“It was mostly the hard problems at the end that were easier [this year],” Wang said. “In discussing with other top competitors across the country, we all came to this conclusion.”

For Wang, the USAMO was two of the Team Selection Tests (TSTs) for the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). The Mathematical Association of America chooses members to be on the IMO team based on the candidates’ performances on their TSTs.

There are six days of TST: one each in December, January, February and March and the last two as the two days of USAMO.

Despite candidates putting in effort to prepare for the TSTs, Wang said that their results still depend on “a bit of random chance.”

“Subject distribution matters a lot on a six-problem test,” he said. “I know many people who are good and who sometimes get screwed by distribution.”

Wang said that he was relatively lucky for subject distribution on the TSTs this year. He said that his chances of being selected as an IMO member have improved since December.

“I got pretty lucky, and I’m relieved my work has paid off,” Wang said.

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