by Kevin Wells
Sitting in a meeting room with the other team advisors at the Holiday Inn in Lynchburg, Virginia, Greg Jacobs told us that this tournament was like no other science competition. He was the president of the USAYPT: United States Association for Young Physicists Tournaments. I met Greg back in 2012 when I took his summer AP Physics workshop for new teachers. Back then, he expounded on physics being “the search for the truth,” and it was refreshing to see his convictions had not changed as he explained that was the aim of the competition.
In 2015 I attended the tournament as a juror. That year it was hosted at Greg’s school, Woodberry Forest. Jurors are typically college professors, research scientists, active or retired engineers, and high school teachers—pretty much anyone with a solid understanding of physics. I had seen firsthand the impressive nature of what was about to take place: high school students debating each other on theory and the merits of a given experimental approach based on undergraduate level research they conducted themselves. Ever since I had seen the live “Physics Fights”, I had been itching to take a team of my own to the tournament. (I convinced Michelle Odell, the Head of Middle and Upper School, to let me teach the Advanced Physics: Research & Development course this school year.) Greg reminded us that the point of the tournament was not about winning but instead about having a conversation on the physics of the problems. Being friendly, professional, and collegial was essential. When one of the advisors asked about cheating, as far as he knew, “That doesn’t happen here.” He explained that in his time, the few incidents they did have were based on a misunderstanding. “We trust each other.”
Being a new, first year team, I advised the students not to get their hopes up in terms of placement. We would be facing some stiff competition from seasoned teams from around the country and world. We did as well as we could with the time that we had and our level of experience. Our goal was to represent our school as well as we could and learn from the experience.
On Saturday morning, the teams convened at Randolph College. In the first round, we went against Rye Country Day School, the defending champions. Our students were nervous, but they held their own. At the end of the match, I introduced myself to Rye’s coach, Mary Krasovec, who had been coaching since the tournament began in 2007. She immediately complimented me on our team’s design of the apparatus for the electromagnetically coupled mechanical oscillators problem. Even though we had not finished our quantitative data analysis or fully propagated our error, receiving some genuine praise from a veteran advisor in the first round of competition felt like a good omen.
Our lunchtime conversation was a flurry of energetic chatter about physics interspersed with a half-time pep talk. Some schools may have had the resources to use a wind tunnel on the projectile motion problem or a $3,000 theodolite on the moon problem, but did they understand the theory and could they explain the underlying physics? This is what the judges were looking for. “If you get asked a question you do not know the answer to, say you do not know. Do not make up an answer. The judges will know.” Even if the the other team has more sophisticated equipment, they still have to explain how it works and how they got their answer. “Ask them how they measured things and what the error bars on their graphs mean.” Ultimately, I reminded our students “to be confident and do your best.”
We ran into some issues with our presentation in round four, and our opponent from Cary Country Day School was polite, gracious … and kind. In the spirit of the competition, he was empathetic to our dilemma and led the conversation with compassion. I thanked that student and his advisor afterward. Greg’s words about collegiality were not just lip service.
As we headed back to the car on Saturday after the keynote speech, we debriefed about the fifth round. Harrison Zumbrun said, “We did really well.” Joe DePasquale remarked that the question he wrote down on the post-it to hand to Harrison right before the time was called was the first question the juror asked. We had come together as a team. I was happy to hear about our students’ progress. We had a tough schedule. We competed against the Harker School, Cary, Rye, RDFZ (the High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China), and Yorba Linda, five of the teams that made it to the top six. I was very proud of our students.
The after party on Sunday night was a chance to mingle, talk physics, and chat about the events of the weekend. The collegial atmosphere persisted, but with the competition over, it was a better opportunity to socialize and ask the other teams physics and non-physics related questions. To quote one of our students, I went “full-on fanboy” while I was chatting with the team from Philips Exeter Academy on their approach to the moon problem. (They spent 11 months taking positional data on the moon. They were also this year’s winner.) I spent 20 minutes discussing the merits of various experimental approaches to the light and oscillator problems with a student from RDFZ. After complimenting another student on her poster presentation and letting her know I gave her performance my top score, I was able to give her some advice on what she could do to get accepted into an American college when she was applying to schools next year.
The drive to and from Lynchburg on Friday and Monday—with a lot of intense physics sandwiched in the middle—made for an exhausting but good weekend. I was pleased that our students were able to present the research they had been working on for months. I was proud of the performance we gave as a first year team. It was a wonderful and memorable experience.
The problems for 2019 have been posted, and I am already recruiting students for the R&D course and tournament next year. Going through the process as an advisor has taught me a lot, and I am eager to implement improvements to the course and our research process. It has changed the way I have been thinking about my classes, too. Even in 8th grade Earth Science, I am looking for more and better ways to get the students thinking and doing and arguing about science at a higher level.
Teaching the research class and competing at the tournament made me realize the strength of our YCDS STEAM program. Jessica Babcock 3D printed holders for the oscillator magnets. Addison Wand configured an Arduino as the controller for the projectile launcher he built. Jacob Azriel used video capture software on one of our new iPads to gather data on the oscillator. Yuki Xu borrowed a school camera to take high resolution pictures of the moon. In preparing for the competition, we had a YCDS faculty panel judge a mock physics fight during exam week. Matthew Davis and Amy Harmon Krtanjek from our robotics department gave our students excellent feedback on experimental design and measurement uncertainty concerns. Thaddeus Abbott and David Tuten from our mathematics department questioned the students about their mathematical approach and the use of statistics. In the science department, Matt Trump, Liz Charleston, and myself have begun conversations about how we can introduce more higher level scientific thinking into our science program by doing more research in our advanced classes.
I am very excited about the state of STEAM education at YCDS. The fact we were able to compete at a national physics competition (with invitations to selected international schools) speaks to the strength of our students and our program. We have grown rapidly in the last few years. Our STEAM initiative is working, and we are poised for further growth in the coming years as well. Our YCDS STEAM program is truly “Extraordinary by Design.”
Additional links for further investigation:
Official USAYPT website:
2018 and 2019 official problems:
Woodberry Forest USAYPT promo video (6 min):
What is a “Physics Fight”?:
USAYPT: Who We Are: