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Meet the team that wowed judges with problem-solving and probing questions

Nicole Pellaton

Exonians take first at the US Invitational Young Physicists Tournament.

February 23, 2018
Exeter's Physics Team
Exeter's winning Physics Team back on campus (left to right): Calvin Henaku, Andrew Loevinger, Christopher Roper, Isaac Browne, Tony Ye and Jenny Yang.

Five uppers and one senior took top honors at the recent United States Invitational Young Physicists Tournament competing against 14 high school teams from the U.S., China and Tunisia.

“This tournament, unlike many others that are about test taking, is actually about doing science,” says Science Instructor Scott Saltman, who advised the team throughout the year preceding the tournament. “It involves researching a problem and going into a lab or an experiment not knowing exactly what’s going to happen.”

Exonians conquered in both presentation (a summary of a year’s worth of research, data and experiments) and opposition, which, Saltman explains, is perhaps the more difficult skill. “Opposing is the ability to listen to another team’s presentation, absorb that very quickly, and be able to see what they did. To listen to their research methods and say, ‘Whoa, we didn’t think about doing it that way. We didn’t think about that complication that you thought of,’ and then be able to engage them in a dialog, without bringing up your own research.”

Exeter was represented by: Isaac Browne ’18, Calvin Henaku ’19, Andrew Loevinger ’19, Christopher Roper ’19, Jenny Yang ’19 and Tony Ye ’19.

On a bustling Monday morning in early February, this group of six, who demonstrate a close bond from the moment they enter the room (Henaku and Yang, the first to arrive, immediately hit the whiteboard to work on a recently-assigned physics problem, laughing as they sketch out ideas), gathered during a brief break between classes and took seats around a Harkness table. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:

Q: What do you get out of a tournament like this that you don’t get out of a class or a club?

Calvin Henaku: In a class, there’s always a certain solution that is asked for. But, for these problems, it’s not inherent what the solution may be. So, you have to dig really deep and know the fundamental physics underlying these questions in order to be able to present them and teach them to your peers.

We’ve already started the problems for next year and they’re all very interesting. Like, are you able to determine the chemical composition of a rainbow just by looking at it? Or, when you throw a hammer up and it flips 90 degrees, why does that happen? These seem so simple to see or look at, but they’re very difficult to explain. (See next year's problems here.)

Tony Ye: It’s more like knowing what’s important and what’s not. To think about why you want to focus on certain aspects, to explain why to build up this model based on certain assumptions — that can be really fun to think about. Why can you model this phenomenon in this way, but not in another way?

Isaac Browne: It feels like you’re doing actual physics research. It’s pretty cool in that sense. Doing original work.

You have to dig really deep and know the fundamental physics underlying these questions in order to be able to present them and teach them to your peers." — Calvin Henaku

Q: What was the most fun part of the competition?

Browne: The hardest part is the preparation. There’s a bit of work that’s done on the presentation shortly before, but most of the work is done long before. That’s the fun part as well — you get to do experiments.

Jenny Yang: It’s really fun to see the other teams’ solutions. A lot of times they had things that we hadn’t really thought of. It’s great being able to learn from their research.

I tried to lead a conversation in which I enabled both of us to show our understanding of the problem to the judges." — Tony Ye

Q. I understand that you excelled at the “opposition.” Can you talk about this?

Yang: Tony did a really good job. There’s an idea that in order to be good at opposition you have to criticize the other team and show the other team what is wrong. Tony showed that wasn’t the case. You can ask questions that prove your understanding, and judges appreciate that more.

Ye: Some teams were aggressive. They probably felt that they needed to win this debate to get a high score. But something Mr. Saltman told us that was really helpful — he said that we could be cooperative. During my opposition, I felt that the presenting team didn’t have time to show their results. I tried to lead a conversation in which I enabled both of us to show our understanding of the problem to the judges.

Q: Each presentation team consists of four of you, with one only one of you allowed to speak. The others have to remain silent, but you’re there to help. How does this work?

Ye: Technically we couldn’t communicate verbally. [Laughing] We more or less whispered.

Browne: We also passed notes.

Ye: A lot of notes. I remember an entire section of the table was covered with notes.

Q: Did you have a sense of how well you were doing as a team?

Henaku: After the preliminaries, they give you a ranking from one to six. You can generally tell how you’re doing by how your scouts are analyzing the other teams’ solutions.

Browne: I think we were unsure until the middle when they announced who was in the top six. We were second at that point. We were doing pretty well.

Q: When you found you were number 1, what did it feel like?

Ye: It was really surprising.

Christopher Roper: They had final ceremonies in a big hall. I remember they started to list the top six. Two teams tied for third. Two teams came in fourth. So, we realized we were either first or second. We were excited when we saw the other team announced as second. Then everyone was really happy.

Q: This is the third PEA team to go to this tournament. Jenny, you’re the first female Exonian on the team. How did it feel?

Yang: It was cool. It was definitely a very exciting experience. When we got our rooms, it was three guys in one room and two in the other. And just me in one room. That was a little bit isolating at first but it was fine because we were also spending a lot of time doing research, and I was collaborating closely with everyone else on the team.

Q: You were doing research right up to the very last minute?

Ye: [Laughing] I woke up at 4:30 a.m. on the day of the competition!

Yang: We definitely put in a lot of work at that point.

How the tournament works

The competition takes the form of a “Physics Fight” in which a student from the reporting team makes a 10-minute presentation, followed by an “opponent” – a student from another school – posing questions. Judges assign points based on the quality of a team’s presentations (which summarize their research, data and experiments) and that team’s opposition skills (the ability to ask questions that elicit further understanding of problem).

Exeter’s team presented on three problems: Browne on electromagnetically coupled mechanical oscillators, Loevinger on the moon’s orbit, and Ye on projectile motion through air. (See the problems here.) Henaku, Roper and Yang worked along with the presenters on the problems throughout the year leading up to the tournament and collaborated on presentation and opposition strategy. During the two-day tournament, held this year in Virginia, Henaku and Roper acted as scouts (rovers who watch the presentations by other teams and bring back intelligence), and Yang was a presentation team member and an opposition strategist. For Browne and Ye this was a repeat performance — they served on PEA’s team last year, which came in third.

Learn more about Exeter’s Science Department.

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