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From Inspiration to Success: Students Win Prestigious Award at International Physics Competition
Dianne Willoughby
Students pose with their award

In the fall of 2017, eight adventurous Nueva students enrolled in “Physics Research,” a new course created by Nueva Upper School founding faculty member Mark Hurwitz. Mark was inspired by his own first immersive experience in research when, as a college senior, his electrical engineering professor recognized Mark’s interests and offered him challenging problems to pursue.

That experience now drives Mark to develop opportunities for Nueva students to find inspiration in scientific research. With over 15 years' experience as a satellite-building researcher at UC Berkeley, Mark knows firsthand the importance of having his students grapple with authentic, real-world problems.

The US Invitational Young Physicists Tournament (USIYPT) provided such an opportunity. Currently in its 11th year, USIYPT is an annual, international physics research and debate tournament, judged by college professors, scientists, and engineers. Mark believed that the problems posed for the USIYPT were the perfect organizing principle for deep research, whether or not students participated in the competition.

“The USIYPT offered a set of serious problems in physics that were vetted by thoughtful organizers while also being accessible to high school students. These questions provided the potential for great depth, demanding our students develop skills in all aspects of scientific exploration: brainstorming, academic research, designing and building novel apparatus, data gathering, detailed analysis, and the ability to communicate and demonstrate their deep understanding,” Mark said.

Uniquely Nueva
Physics I, or equivalent preparation, is a prerequisite for students to take Physics Research. Structuring this program as a class provided the environment of inquiry, structure, and dedicated time for the students to delve deeply into the tournament problems. Students made progress individually and in small teams, ran into inevitable obstacles, and (usually on their own) identified and acquired the knowledge they needed to overcome them.

According to Mark, the Nueva student-centered model that prioritizes learning driven by student interests was important to the successful preparation of solutions. Students naturally gravitated toward specific questions, while at the same time the class as a whole drew upon each individual’s strengths to solve prickly problems.

Success at USIYPT 2018

Students focus while competing in their physics competition

The 2018 USIYPT took place at the end of January at Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA, with a record fifteen teams participating. At the heart of the tournament are “physics fights,” where teams present their solutions to the four research problems, or critique a presentation. The topics and questions vary each year, covering a range of topics including electricity and magnetism, aerodynamics, optics and light, and mechanics.

Despite only having five months instead of the usual 12 to prepare (because they were a new team), Nueva had a strong showing, winning the Bibilashvili Award recognizing superior physics understanding. This was an excellent result for a first-time team at an international competition.

Senior Andrew Z. received plaudits for his work on electromagnetically coupled oscillators, and he and fellow teammate, Xander H., were recognized by peers for the complex apparatus they created, the high-quality data it produced, and the innovative directions they took their solutions. Junior Cameron H. and senior Nachi G. measured the period, eccentricity, and semi-major axis of the moon’s orbit using a high-power camera. Juniors Tobias B. and Greg B. explored the aerodynamic forces on spinning balls, with Tobias’ report including data from their ping-pong ball cannon and a Nueva-built wind tunnel. Juniors Peter A. and Ben S. studied the spectra of a light bulb filament at a range of temperatures, and Peter earned some of the strongest scores for his critical analysis of an opposing team. Andrew Z. also won three “Captains Awards” from the other team captains at the poster session.

Students found the experience to be challenging and rewarding. According to Peter A., “It was great to see how other groups approached the same problems in pretty different ways, and fun to compete with groups from around the world, seeing that they all put effort into the same problems we did.” Andrew Z. added, “The USIYPT was a gathering of young people who deeply cared about science beyond facts and equations. Everyone I spoke to was motivated by a curiosity in how the world worked, and was eager to discuss the intricacies of the specific phenomena we explored. It was difficult to present our project to a panel of experts, but knowing that a presentation of that rigor was our end goal drove us to create an experiment we were incredibly proud of.”

Their participation in the USIYPT provided an opportunity that most students will not have until their undergraduate or even graduate careers. Because the final report had to be robust in the face of questioning by knowledgeable students from other schools and professional judges, both the work and treatment of potential errors had to be thorough. Teamwork was a key component, as each problem posed challenges too great for any one student. At the tournament, students had to present with confidence, absorb information quickly, think on their feet, and respond thoughtfully to questions. All Nueva team members not only rose to these myriad challenges, but also thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Pulling together, this team that performed so well and had such a great time created an experience that felt uniquely Nueva to everyone involved.

“I’m thrilled with the results our students achieved at this first year of participation in USIYPT,” said Mark. “They showed that they brought the ingredients to succeed because of the caliber of their work and their pure desire to learn.”

The 2019 tournament problems have already been released, with one of these proposed by Nueva based on a project that senior Eli V. performed in ninth grade! Nueva students are already hard at work on the new problems, but it is not too late for interested students to join. Current ninth and tenth graders who have taken or are currently taking Physics I are encouraged to contact Mark Hurwitz to learn more.

By Dianne Willoughby, Editorial Manager

March 28, 2018

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