History of the PhysicsBowl

PhysicsBowl editors:

Years as editor
Years as editor
Jim Nelson
W. Edward Gettys

Mary Mogge
Courtney Willis
Richard Olenick
Michael Faleski


Jon Anderson


Myra West



History of the contest:

From 1983...

Here is an article by Jim Nelson (a former editor) that gives some of the origin of an annual exam put out by AAPT that eventually led to the PhysicsBowl: James Nelson, "AAPT/NSTA high school physics examination" Phys. Teach. 21, 100-103 (February 1983)

Here is an article by Kenneth Fox and Jim Nelson with even more information about the beginnings of physics contests from sections:Doug Fox and Jim Nelson, “Physics contests for high school students,” Phys. Teach. 21, 161–163 (March 1983).

Some more of the development of the contest is seen in documents written by Edward Gettys (another former editor) regarding the "Metrologic Exam" (which morphed into the PhysicsBowl) to the AAPT Test Development Committee (Draft) Feb, 1989and another document written to NSF, May 1989

Courtney Willis, another former editor, provided some more history to the contest by writing

"To give you a bit of background, the exam committee was not originally formed
for the PhysicsBowl.  It came about because a lot of HS teachers wanted a general
test similar to the one the ACS produces for chemistry.  The exam committee was
formed to produce such a test.  The test was then revised every few years
(2, 3, or 4 I don’t actually recall).  Teachers would buy copies of the test and
then give them to their students.  The teachers would be provided with the answers
and some statistics so they could compare how their students performed.  The test
was kind of an external benchmark the teachers could use to see how well the year
had gone.  The results were not submitted nationally.   I was very pleased when this
test first appeared about 1980 because I was teaching HS physics and chemistry at
a small school in the mountains and had used the ACS test for some time and really
appreciated having the physics test too. 
Metrologic (the laser company) was very involved in the educational market at the
time and first proposed the PhysicsBowl.  Herb Gottlieb was a representative for
Metrologic and also a member of the test committee and he proposed a cooperative
venture.  Metrologic would provide a free laser to the highest scoring school in
each region and the AAPT exam committee would write a yearly exam.  Thus the exam
committee would write a yearly competitive exam for the PhysicsBowl and then also
produce a revised introductory exam every so often.    In the mid 80’s AAPT started
sponsoring the Physics Olympiad and the exam committee had at various times some
responsibility helping out there.  About 10 years ago the PhysicsBowl had become
so popular it had pretty much taken the place of the introductory exam and so it
was dropped.   There were a number of sponsors for the next few years.  For a while
there were scholarships for the top students nationally and regionally and I think
this also helped fuel the growth of the PhysicsBowl."

One of the biggest changes to the contest took place in 2002 when a second division was introduced.
Previously, all students answered the 40 questions, but as the contest became more competitive, two
divisions became necessary. The contest has retained this feature ever since.

Not only has the contest itself changed, but also its sponsors. In the subsequent years, Metrologic
eventually moved on to other endeavors (after 2001) and Knowles Science Teaching Foundation was one of
the sponsors (2002) until Frey Scientific and Texas Instruments became sponsors starting in 2003. In 2009,
Vernier Scientific also became a yearly sponsor and the number of sponsors was increased in 2011 to include
several other companies such as Educational Innovations, Inc., John Wiley & Sons, Pasco Scientific, and
Princeton University Press.

Finally, the contest has evolved in format greatly in the past few years. Previously, the exam was
printed and mailed to teachers, but this option was phased out in 2011. Instead, a PDF form can be
mailed to instructors for copying. In addition, there now is a totally online version of the contest
available from WebAssign which started in 2008.

Finally, a recent article about the PhysicsBowl appeared in TPT: Michael C. Faleski, “25 Years of AAPT's PhysicsBowl,” Phys. Teach. 48, 156-157 (March 2010).


For more details and information about the PhysicsBowl, please contact AAPT's Programs department at 301-209-3340 or programs@aapt.org