When Collin Fan turns on a faucet to wash his hands or fill a glass with water, his mind races into physics mode.
“I immediately start thinking about why the water gets narrower as it falls down,” Fan said. “Science is truly all around us and once you learn it and really get into it, you can see that.”
Fan, a rising senior at Stevenson, took his enthusiasm and curiosity for science on the road last month and represented the United States as part of a five-person team in the International Physics Olympiad. The team rolled up three gold medals and two silvers. Fan finished with a silver medal, ranking him among the top 25 percent of physics students in the world.
Approximately 400 students, five from 80 countries, competed in the event, which was supposed to be held in Belarus but was changed to a five-day virtual event out of Switzerland due to the war in Ukraine. The U.S. team gathered together in San Jose for the competition.
There were two rounds of exams at the Olympiad: theoretical and experimental.
The theoretical exam was a paper and pencil exam where students had to show their free response answers. The experimental exam was running advanced simulations to solve problems.
“One of the questions was that if you drop a ball from the top of a tower, how long would it take to fall and how far is it deflected (when it hit the ground). From that information, you had to determine wind speed, gravitational acceleration, air density and all that kind of stuff.
“I think this Olympiad was the toughest in history because the cutoffs were the lowest in history.”
The qualification process was pretty tough, too.
To make the U.S. team, Fan had to endure three rigorous rounds of competition against the best science students in the county. The field started at 6,000 students, was narrowed down to 400, then to 20. And from that 20, the five finalists were picked.
The Top 20 students went to a two-week training camp at University of Maryland in June to compete for those final five spots. Fan wound up making the final cut earning the distinction of being one of the top five physics student in the country along with 2 teammates from California and one each from Minnesota and Texas.
“The camp and the team, it was a great experience for me to get to know people who were as interested in physics and excited about it as I am,” Fan said. “It was amazing to get to know all these really smart people.”
Fan wasn’t sure if he’d fit in. But got some encouraging words from one of his favorite science teachers at Stevenson, Mrs. Sheila Edstrom.
“When I was heading off to the round of 20, I was like ‘I hope I’m not the worst one there,’” Fan said. “But Mrs. Edstrom was like, ‘I think you can get the Top 5.’ And that’s what really motivated me to do my best to get there.”
Edstrom, who taught Fan last year in the AP Physics C Mechanics program at Stevenson, wrote a recommendation for Fan that described his passion for science and his ability to help his classmates better understand it.
“Collin has an analytical and mathematical mind, and he has amazing problem-solving skills,” Edstrom wrote. “(He) is a thinker, and in the world of physics education, it is easy to identify the thinkers versus the memorizers. Those who memorize tend to struggle with physics, especially the more advanced topics. Collin clearly loves to learn.
“He always is willing to help others. He knows the material, and he is willing and patient enough to help anyone who seeks his help. His classmates look to him and listen to him. Collin is the strongest student to enter my class. Ever.”
Fan, who took a strong interest in math and science in middle school, isn’t satisfied, though. He still has goals, and has big ambitions. He wants to qualify again next year for the International Physics Olympiad and would love to use physics as a professional in a career such as mechanical engineering or perhaps even teaching.
He joked that he wished he could use his physics knowledge in a way that would benefit him more on the basketball court.
“I love to play basketball,” said Fan, who isn’t on a basketball team at Stevenson but is involved with the math and physics teams, “The Statesman,” FMP and Peer Tutors. “Even though I can predict the basketball’s trajectory, I wouldn’t say that being knowledgeable in physics has really helped me all that much in basketball.”