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Meeting Greg Jacobs and the USAYPT

July 16, 2012
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This past weekend, I had the pleasure of getting together with Greg Jacobs, of Jacobs Physics to chat about physics teaching over dinner. One of the things we discussed that most caught my interest is the United States Young Physicist Tournament (USAYPT).

If you haven’t heard of USAYPT before, it seems to do a pretty incredible job of exposing students to what active physics research is like. Students begin preparing for the tournament at the start of the school year, when the 4 research questions for the tournament are announced. This year, the questions are:

  • Measuring the thermal conductivity of aluminum by two different methods
  • Building an acoustic interferometer and using it to measure the speed of sound in a pure, elemental gas.
  • Explaining the motion of the RipStick and Flying Turtle. Explain how these caster based toys are able to accelerate on from rest on level ground.
  • Downhill Rotation race: Students are to watch the video embedded below and refute or support the claims made for explaining the outcome of a race between a bottle filled with liquid water and a bottle filled with solid ice.

Reading the problem statements reminded me so much of my experience in independent research, where my professor would set me off with some general questions and observations, give me a few references, and tell me to dive into doing experiments as quickly as possible. This turned out to be a wonderful way to learn—set out an ambitious goal and interesting question for students that will stretch them in many ways, as theorists, as experimentalists, as researchers and as collaborators and then turn them loose, while still staying involved to provide occasional guidance. It is much of what draws me toward wanting to find ways of introducing more project based learning in my classes.

For the actual USAYPT, teams of 3-4 students work up 10 minute presentations on 3 out of the 4 questions, and then at the tournament, participate in a series of physics debates, where they are challenged by another team to present their explanation to a particular problem, and then after the presentation, the challenging team offers a critique, pointing out both the strengths and weaknesses of the presentation, and then counters with their own analysis and findings, with the ultimate outcome of the debate being decided by a panel of physics teachers and professors. In many ways, this mirrors group meetings in research labs or conference presentations and really gets students to the heart of science—working collaboratively, even with rivals to develop better scientific explanations.

These problems could easily be an excellent foundation for a 2nd year physics or research science course. Greg actually does this, and uses the time after the tournament in february to prepare students for the AP Physics C exam.

Clearly there are very few opportunities for high school students that get them to experience so many facets of modern science research: open ended questions, experimental and theoretical work, collaboration with peers, and presentation and debate. Certainly programs like the Intel Science Search do this, but often they are very focused on the individual, or miss out on some of the back and forth that you get in a physics debate.

Greg is really working hard to get more teams to participate in the tournament (8 participated last year). I’m not sure that I’ll be able to put together a team for this year, but it is something I’m definitely intrigued by, and could very easily see myself ordering magic title for “research.”

Also, I’ve invited Greg to have his students present their work on one of last year’s challenges to study pinhole cameras and explain camera conditions necessary to produce optimal image quality at the Global Physics Department this fall.

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