FAQs: Collected from Teachers & Organizers

What is the UBC Physics Olympics event?

Physics Olympics is an annual science competition organized by the Department of Physics & Astronomy (UBC Faculty of Science) and the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy (UBC Faculty of Education). Taking place on UBC campus, this full day experience for B.C. high school teams is comprised of two pre-build projects, two labs, Fermi questions and a physics quiz game call “Quizzics!”.

The team with the lowest decibel score at the end of the day receives a trophy for their school, as well as other awards. Up to five students from a team can participate in any given event, with each event being open to the same or a different set of team members. Teams may have between 1 and 30 students.

The competition is a fun and creative challenge for students and teachers, and all teams are supported and celebrated for participating.

What does this event cost?

Registration: In 2024, we will charge $75 per team, which covers some of our budget expenses, with the competition being partly subsidized by the organizing departments.

Materials/equipment: We will never require expensive parts or select equipment (like a laser cutter or 3-D printer) for creating competitive pre-build designs. There will always be budget-oriented ways to complete pre-build challenges.

Funding: In many BC public schools, PACs have gaming grants (about $200) that can go to registration, materials, etc.

I’m a teacher and want to participate – how do I start?

Check out our website! we have multiple pages that aim to help you through the entire process:

  • Registration provides sign up information
  • The Rule Books outline the pre-build and competition logistics.
  • For Teachers page gives additional backgrond on the Physics Olympics competition, along with tips and recommendations on how to prepare your classes
  • The Timetable of events shows the day’s schedule.
  • And the Home page will alert you to upcoming deadlines.
  • For viewing past activities, check out the Gallery.

If you have any questions, or would like to connect with a more experienced teacher, contact Marina Milner-Bolotin for more information.

I’m a teacher looking for mentorship – are there opportunities to connect with more experienced teachers?

If you would like to connect with a more experienced teacher for tips, or advice, we can connect you! Please contact Marina Milner-Bolotin to inquire.

I’m a teacher and haven’t participated in this event before – how do I set up a student team?

Visit physics classes, send out school announcements and set up a communication structure: group chat, meeting schedule, and lots of preparation practice!

This event is open to students in grades 10, 11 and 12. Some teachers recommend that grades 11 and 12 are most appropriate for the competition material. However, exceptional grade 10 students have participated successfully in the past. Teams are generally from 5-10 students.

If you would like to connect with a more experienced teacher for tips, or advice, we can connect you! Please contact Marina Milner-Bolotin to inquire.

I’m a teacher – how do I prepare my class for the different events (prebuilds, labs, Fermi questions and Quizzics)?

Prebuilds: Read the rule books carefully! Ensure that students understand what is not permitted and what is required for the event. Check students’ building progress carefully so there are no surprise disqualifications on the day!

Brainstorm early! Students will need a lot of time to try out different designs, building methods, parts, etc. Many things will fail initially, so test, test, and test!

For examples on prebuilds from previous years, see the rule books from past events here.

Labs: We provide a short description of the general lab topic in the rule book – the details of the lab are kept as a surprise. Student teams will thus receive lab instructions on the day of the competition when they enter the event.

Quizzics: Quizzics questions are physics questions in multiple choice format. Examples are available here, at the UBC faculty of Education Department of curriculum and Pedagogy website, under the “Secondary” tab and then “Physics”.

Fermi questions: Fermi questions are order of magnitude estimation problems. You can find many examples online, including:

I’m a teacher/student – where can I find Quizzics practice questions?

UBC Faculty of Education Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy has Secondary School questions related to physics here. The questions are found under each subtopic, ranging from Vectors to Magnetism to Thermodynamics to Circular Motion and more. These are all examples of “quizzics” questions.

I’m a teacher/student – where can I find Fermi practice questions?

There are many Fermi questions online. Here are some examples:

I’m a student – How can I participate in the Physics Olympics if there is no teacher at my high school participating in this event?

While physics teachers often serve as coaches, there is no requirement for the coach to be a physics teacher. If the physics teacher in your school is unavailable, ask around your school to see if another teacher can coach your team. Depending on your school’s rules, a parent could possibly serve as a coach, too. Should you need to ask a parent to be a coach, please check with your high school Principal to ensure this is allowed, and if so, what the school requires of the parent.

For teachers

How to approach this event: This competition is about team spirit, community and physics fun! We value everyone’s participation, regardless of scores.

Some teachers have found it helpful to be less competitive and more collaborative/supportive of their students. It is important to practice physics concepts throughout the year in labs and classes that relate to the events.

Prebuilds: Start prebuilds early(!) – this will take up most of your time. It’s fun for students to brainstorm designs, but help direct them to keep it simple – actual builds are hard to do and you need enough time for multiple failures and successes. Remember: Projects can break – be prepared!

The prebuilds will never require expensive equipment, parts, or machinery. *Important note: Glue guns and popsicle sticks can be part of successful builds! 

Communication: Make sure your students are organized (give them group chat, meeting times, communication directions). Check their projects regularly and act like a judge (make sure they are following rules – creatively following the rules is not the same as trying to circumvent them!).

For teachers in remote locations wanting to participate at UBC

Traveling to UBC from a distant location has its challenges. It takes much organization, time and determination to manage a large student competition trip. So, is it worth it?

We think it is! Our 2023 Physics Olympics hosted 760+ students, teachers and coaches. The energy was electric and the networking was incredible. Apart from our event, there are many things to add on to your trip:

If you would like to connect with an experienced teacher who travels from a remote location for this event, we can connect you! Please contact Marina Milner-Bolotin to inquire.

For students

This event is a about team collaboration – support your team! Try your best: you are part of the Physics Olympics family now as a representative of your school, so we will celebrate you just for participating!

*Bring extra parts for your pre-builds* Projects can break and bend (and sometimes can have an unscheduled disassembly through an accidental drop test or getting sat upon). The competition day presents a large, busy and competitive environment, but we got you! Your peers, teachers/coaches and event volunteers are all here for help and support.

What do students and teachers get from participating in this event?

One student reported that it was through this event that she clarified her interests in post-secondary education (she’s now in first year engineering) and lost her hesitancy about how to proceed.

A practiced teacher who has been involved in the Physics Olympics since 2007 keeps coming back for the experience for his physics students and the opportunity to be at UBC and its neighbouring physics venues (TRIUMF, SBQMI, PHAS labs).

Another teacher explained that this competition opens different ways to engage with students: to support their ideas, creativity, successes, failures and challenges in a mentorship capacity.  

Pre-build #1 “Cool it Down”(Valery Milner)
What are the allowed electrical components?

1. The use of a SINGLE standard Peltier plate, not larger than 40mm x 40mm, will be allowed (see picture below), as long as it is purchased NOT as part of an assembled cooling/heating system (i.e., your team must design and assemble the system yourself – the judges may request to see your parts list).

2. The use of a SINGLE dc motor will be allowed to produce electricity. It will have to be powered mechanically, per the description of allowed energy sources in the rulebook (no hand cranking!).

There is no limit on the number of motors that use the electrical power produced by the generator.

Pre-build #2 “Solar-powered car” (Andrzej Kotlicki)
Can the stand for the solar car challenge hold the light below the top of the table? Can it extend beyond the edge of the table?

Yes, as long as it can lay on the table, not attached, and does not exceed the specified dimensions.

If the car has moveable/flexible components, can these extend beyond the dimensions specified in the rules during the operation of the car if they stay within the specified size once unused?


To save us the cost of buying the flashlight to be used, could you provide the beam angle of the flashlight in its most focused configuration? If you have the measurements, may you also provide its power?

We don’t have the power measurements. The light focuses to a circle of about 7 cm in diameter at 1 m. Notice that the circle is not uniformly illuminated.

Update to Pre-build #2 Rule Book!

We have updated the Pre-build #2 Rule book measurements to the following: the maximum size of the stand is 25 cm and the maximum height of table is 74 cm.

Are we allowed to use glue, or other types of adhesives on the car to keep everything in place?

You may use white, or hot glue to adhere the cardboard pieces together.

Are we allowed to use bearings, screws, tape, or glue in making the solar powered car?

Bearing are not allowed (unless they are part of the motor). Screws are not allowed. Tape is not allowed. Glue (white, or hot glue) can be used to connect cardboard parts, but may not be used for reinforcement or making parts.

For the solar car, are we allowed to use rubber tires?

No. See rules here.

For the solar car, do the wheels need to be made entirely out of cardboard?


Re: the solar car wheels: Can we put ball bearings or plastic straws on the axles to reduce friction?

Is it possible to connect a long wire from our cardboard car to the stand for the flashlight? The rulebook has size limits for the car, itself; is this possible?

No. the size limit applies to all parts of both the car and the stand, so a connecting wire is not acceptable.

In the rules, it states that the car can be made of “cardboard only”. Does this eliminate the use of string and tape in the build?

Yes it does. You can use white or hot glue to connect cardboard pieces when needed.

Are there any restrictions on which solar panel can be used? As well, how many solar panels in total can be used?

There are no restrictions on what type of solar panel you use, or how many solar panels are used, as long as they fit the size requirements.


If we use a weight on a string to move the flashlight, can the weight lower from the edge of the table and leave the confinements of the stand after the trial starts?

No. All the parts of the stand have to be confined in the stated dimensions at all times.

Does the stand also need to be made of cardboard?


The rules state that the flashlight will be on a continuous high-beam setting; however, from the video on the flashlight’s Amazon product page, it seems like the flashlight also allows you to adjust the field of view/spread of the light. Will the light be spread out, or concentrated at a point? Can we adjust that ourselves?

Yes, you can adjust the light focusing.

Does paper or cardstock count as cardboard? Are there any requirements for what type of cardboard we can use?

No. Paper and/or cardstock does not count as cardboard. You must use regular cardboard.

What would happen if the car does not travel in a straight line? Are there any limitations on how far the car can move to the side? Will there be barriers along the 7-metre path?

The solar car will be tested on the floor of the lecture hall. If it goes far off from a straight-line trajectory, it might hit the wall or furniture. There will be no special barriers along the trajectory path.

Is the 7-metre maximum distance measured in a perpendicular line from the starting point, or from the starting point to the car? (assuming the car might not go in a perfectly straight line).

From the starting point to the car.

The wheels need to be made entirely of cardboard – but can we use other materials on the wheels such as rubber banks, tap, glue/hot glue? Can we make the wheel hub out of plastic or wood and make the rest of the wheel out of cardboard?


Can we use materials such as solder to connect electrical components and wires?


Can we use electrical components such as capacitors, resistors, diodes and transistors?


Re: the solar car design: do the propellers for the car have to be made of cardboard?

If you mean wheels, yes.

Can we use capacitors in our solar car, if we can prove they are empty?


Are there any restrictions on the solar panel, or motor that is used?

No restrictions other than size.

Does a fan count as an electrical component?

No, a fan is not considered to be an electrical component.

Are we allowed to put a component in front of the flashlight (i.e., a magnifying glass) to alter the light that comes out of the flashlight if it is part of the stand and is contained within the size limit?


Are we allowed to use glue throughout the build, including on the wheels?

Only to glue pieces together.

Are we allowed to use solar power to start another mechanism that moves the car? For example, using the solar power to start a launcher that propels the car?

Only the energy from the solar panel can be used. It can be converted to any other form of energy to move the car.

From the picture in the rulebook here (https://phas-physoly.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2024/01/Prebuild2_solarpoweredcar_Jan252024KLD.pdf), how much would have to be removed to be considered just the wheel shaft and gears?

The wheels and long metal piece are not the shaft or the motor.

Is the car allowed to detach into two pieces when driving?


Does the axle for the Solar car have to be made out of cardboard as well?

No, the wheel shaft is excluded.

Can we use tape, or heat (for soldering shafts to wheels, etc.)?

Tape is not allowed. You cannot solder cardboard, but you can solder electronic components and wires.

Are we allowed to use multiple solar panels?

Yes, you can use more than 1 panel.

Is the car allowed to ‘detach’ at some point during the trial?

Nothing can drop off the car during the trial – the total car dimensions have to remain within the defined limits for the whole trial.

We were wondering if we could start our trial by briefly charging our solar car using the flashlight at the start of the course, and then the solar car would drive off by itself using its charged battery. In order to comply with the “no stored energy” rule, we would start the car with dead/discharged batteries and can bring a voltmeter or other equipment to prove to the judges that the batteries were not pre-charged on the day of the contest.

If you completely discharge the battery so it shows 0 Volts it will kill the battery, so this strategy will not work.

Can the light stand include a lens (external to the flashlight) to help concentrate the light onto the car’s solar panels?


The rules say that gears do not need to be made out of cardboard. Would an entire pre-made plastic gear box be allowed?


Can non-cardboard bushings be used around the wheel shaft, or would bushings be considered separate from the shaft and thus required to be constructed from cardboard?

No, they would be separate and so not allowed.

Are supercapacitors allowed on the solar car?


Is shorting the capacitors sufficient to demonstrate that no power is stored in the car?

As long as it is shorted by a wire for a long enough time.

I understand that the stand and light must be smaller than 25x25x25cm and be placed on the table. Does the entire footprint of the stand + light need to be on the table, or are we permitted to have parts of it over the edge of the table, as long as the stand remains stable?

The stand may overhang the table as long as it is stable.

Is the use of a plastic stand included with the solar panel permitted?


Does whatever we use to hold the axels in place have to be made entirely out of cardboard as well?

Yes, it does.

Are we allowed to use a remote control to control the car’s speed?


Once the 2-minute timer has ended and the light is turned off, can the car still be able to move a certain distance, or is the measurement the distance travelled by the car at the end of the 2 minutes?

We will measure the distance travelled by the end of the 2 minute time.

Is it permitted for teams to test the angle of their flashlight via turning it on and shining it on an object, such as a dummy car?

No. The light can be switched on only at the start of the test.

In the Rule book it states that the maximum table height is 74 cm. However the diagram shows the table height being 75 cm. Is this a number that is a ball park, so within a few cm?

The table height will be 74 cm.

Is it possible to add reflective stickers to our solar cars? We want to create reflective surfaces to collect more light on the build.

No. These are not materials listed.

During the event will the flashlight be fully charged? What would happen if many teams go and the battery goes down over time? Will it be replaced with a freshly charged one?

The flashlights will be continuously charged between the tests.

If we short the capacitors before the trial to get rid of any stored energy, even then there will still be about 0.1V in the capacitor if checked with a multimeter. Is this ok?

No. It has to be 0. The short has to be on for longer.

What are the acceptable adhesive materials? I.e., glue guns and glue sticks?

Glue is ok to connect things but not as a building material for parts.

Does the solar panel have to be attached to the car?


Will the car be able to be started anywhere along the starting line? Not just at the centre? And can the stand be at the corner of the table?

1) Yes 2) yes 3) but why?

Are adhesives allowed to join non-cardboard parts together? For example, if you were to glue multiple solar panels into one panel, or glue/tape wires together for organization?

White or hot glue is allowed to join any parts together.

Can we use a pulley to move the flashlight as the car is moving?

If it is part of the stand, yes – as long as it is only powered by gravity and the dimensions of the stand are within the limits of 25 cm.

What materials are acceptable as a weight (for the stand)?

There are no restrictions on stand materials.

What type of floor will be the car be running on? Will it be perfectly smooth (hardwood floor, smooth concrete, etc.), or will it be carpet, or some sort of material that is bumpy?

It is a smooth floor.

Are we allowed to use breadboards so the capacitors can be removed? This way we can prove there is no voltage in the car, quicker. Do breadboards count as electronics?

No. Breadboards are not electronic components. All capacitors have to be shorted before the trial.

Currently, we don’t have sufficient torque produced by the motor to move the wheels directly and we would need to introduce a gear ration. Can we use a drive belt between two cardboard wheels, what materials can our drive belt be made of, and is an elastic drive belt legal?

You can use a drive belt but it cannot be elastic, possibly storing energy.

Can we use a Cheerios box as the cardboard for the solar car?

If it is a cardboard box then it is fine.

Can the car have a breadboard attached to the chassis?


Are parts of the stand permitted to hang below the surface of the table, as long as it is securely placed on top of the table?

The stand has to be placed on the table not attached. Some parts can hang below the table as longa as the dimensions are preserved.

Are we permitted to start our car further back from the start line, or does it have to be on the line?

The car has to start at the start line.

Would using empty rechargeable lithium batteries be allowed? This means there will still be a small charge left inside the battery. The rulebook states no stored energy is permitted before the start: are there exceptions to this rule?

The batteries would have to show 0 volts to have no stored energy but I do not think the completely discharged batteries will ever work again.

Can we use other materials on the wheels such as rubber bands, tap, glue/hot glue? Can we make the wheel hub out of plastic or wood and make the rest of the wheel out of cardboard?


Can we use electrical components such as capacitors, resistors, diodes, transistors?


Are we able to manipulate the table height below 74 cm.?

If you mean changing the table height, the answer is no.