Every February, the United States Association for Young Physicists (USAYPT) releases four physics problems for which high school students spend a year preparing solutions and then present at a tournament the following January. This year, for the first time, Nueva sent a team of four students — Peter A., Tobias B., Cameron W., and Andrew Z. — to compete against teams from twelve other schools across the U.S. and abroad.
To prepare for the tournament, students enrolled in a new course, Physics Research, taught by Nueva physics teacher Mark Hurwitz. Four pairs of students each took on one of the problems posed by USAYPT, and during the course of the semester students engaged in project-based learning to design experimental approaches, gather data, analyze results, and finally prepare presentations for the tournament in January.
“The problem I worked on was inspired by the solar eclipse at the beginning of the school year and was about the orbital perimeter of the moon," eleventh grader Cameron W. said. "The idea was to measure the moon yourself and obtain your own data. I took a bunch of photos of the moon and our goal was to find the period of the moon’s orbit, which is an elliptical orbit. The other two parameters we were looking for were semimajor axis and eccentricity, which are parameters of any eclipse.”
To solve this problem, Cameron and his partner, twelfth-grader Nachi G., had to use their data on the moon’s orbital perimeter. Cameron explained, “At night I would go across the street, take a photo with a camera that could take a focused picture of the moon, and then I would put the photos into Photoshop, which I could use to measure the width of the moon in pixels.”
At the tournament, two teams of four students each are matched against each other in “Physics Fights,” in which one team acts as the reporter — presenting the problem and its solution, while the other acts as the opposition — asking the reporting teams questions about their presentation. Nueva students had the opportunity to report on Cameron’s problem in one of their fights, an experience he called “slightly nerve-racking” but also rewarding.
While eleventh grader Peter A. noted that he didn’t have the opportunity to present his specific problem at USAYPT, he did participate as the opposition team in a Physics Fight, where he was able to cross-examine a team that did present the problem.
“It was cool [to attend USAYPT] in that it was a culmination of everything we were doing in this class and seeing that what we were doing was valid and interesting" Peter said. "In addition, we got to see how other teams approached the problem. The team I was examining built a massive spectrometer with a gigantic arm that could be turned around to face the light that was being sent through it.”
Cameron concurred, saying, “The most interesting part was getting to see how other people approached the same problem you did, but from a different perspective."
Peter said that despite the Nueva team having far less time than other teams at USAYPT to prepare problems, since they only began at the beginning of the school year, Nueva’s students were awarded the Bibilashvili Award, named for tournament founder Tengiz Bibilashvili, in recognition of their good physics skills and knowledge of the problems.
“We didn’t make it to the finals,” Peter explained, “but we were the closest to the finals without being a finalist, and we won an award, so we did well considering that we had so much less time than teams from other schools.”
For next year, Nueva’s students will be on an even playing field with students at other schools. The problems for next year’s tournament have already been released and students are hard at work. One of the new problems was suggested by Mark and inspired by a project that Nueva twelfth grader Eli V. created when he was in ninth grade. Nueva has clearly made a mark on the United States Association for Young Physicists Tournament already!
Lily Brown, Upper School English Teacher/Advisor
February 14, 2018