When the Erickson family gathers in their Lake Elmo living room for their traditional Saturday game night, they know it's time to hand the instruction manual to 17-year-old Evan.
"It's kind of an inside joke," Evan Erickson said.
He figures out the rules fast and then explains them to his mom and siblings. Convoluted instruction manuals fall under his best skill set: problem solving. And this summer, he will bring those skills to the world stage.
Erickson is one of five U.S. teenagers to qualify for the annual International Physics Olympiad, the biggest secondary school physics competition in the world. Erickson made it through several rounds of testing, where 7,000 of the country's top physics students were whittled down to the final team.
"It was a very brutal selection process, extremely difficult questions," said Kevin Zhou, coach of the U.S. team and a doctoral student at Stanford University. "I'd say a lot of them are comparable or more difficult than the questions one would get if you were studying for a Ph.D. degree in physics. The kinds of questions we ask are trickier than those that you would see in those courses."
The competition, with two five-hour online tests, will be this month. The students compete as individuals, Zhou said, receiving medals based on their performance. The country with the most successful team typically has all five students win gold.
Topics range from electricity to special relativity.
"I always liked learning why stuff happens," Erickson said. "I also like working with equations and things."
Erickson, who was homeschooled, earned a perfect ACT score when he was in ninth grade and started taking college classes in 2020. Even his family is in awe of his self-motivation.
"He was doing ridiculous things. He figured out calculus on his own in, like, fifth grade" through an online learning website, his mother, Rena, said. "He's always been very curious. He was always really quiet when he was little, and I finally realized, 'Oh, I think he's just thinking hard.' "
His mom, who doesn't have a science background, said she just tries to make sure Erickson's stress levels are low and that he focuses on his character as well as his studies.
Erickson said he often trains two to three hours a day online with the rest of the team, run by the American Association of Physics Teachers. Even though he knew a lot of the material already, the training is intense, and he said he is still learning.
"One interesting angle is just how independently he's done all of this," Zhou said. "Both as a home-school student, without an official physics teacher, and also from being outside the established competition system."
Erickson said he doesn't stay motivated by competing against the other kids or the prospect of winning gold, but by doing the best that he can.
"Most of these competitions are for individuals. It's more so me against myself," he said.
The competition is being hosted by Lithuania. The U.S. team will participate online, meaning Erickson will compete while in Minnesota.
Zekriah Chaudhry • 612-673-7186