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Another first at physics tournament

‘You’re talking about a topic you love,’ says a team member summarizing PEA’s repeat performance at global competition.

Debbie Kane
March 22, 2019
PEA winning team at Young Physicists Tournament 2019.

It’s called a “physics fight.” Students present, then defend, their solutions to advanced physics problems during the annual United States Association for Young Physicists Tournament (USAYPT). But, to the Exeter team who captured first place at the 2019 tournament in January, it’s simply a conversation. “It’s structured like a talk between two friends,” says team member Penny Brant ’20. “You’re talking about a topic you love.”

This was Exeter’s second consecutive USAYPT championship, which drew high school students from across the U.S., China and Tunisia. The nine-member Exeter team was one of 13 who competed in this year’s tournament, held at Rye Country Day School in Rye, New York. Led by captain Junze (Tony) Ye ‘19, Exeter’s team comprised Brant, Neil Chowdhury ‘22, Calvin Henaku ’19, Andrew Loevinger ’19, Alex Morand ‘22, Charlie Neuhaus ‘19, Christopher Roper ’19, and Tony Yu ’20. Henaku, Loevinger, Roper and Ye were repeat competitors from Exeter’s 2018 championship team.

How the competition works

During the two-day tournament, a student “presenter” from a four-member “reporting” team has ten minutes to discuss their research on one of four preselected physics experiments. Then a student from another school (an “opponent”) questions the presenter about their team’s problem-solving approach. Brant, Loevinger, Ye and Yu were presenters for Exeter; Chowdhury, Henaku, Morand, Neuhaus and Roper were Exeter’s support team, scouting other schools’ presentations. Only one presenter or challenger can speak at a time; the support team can pass notes—or whisper—intel they’ve learned from watching other presentations. Judges rank the teams according to their problem-solving methods and their ability to discuss and evaluate other teams’ solutions. “It’s interesting to see how other teams approach the same problems,” says Ye.

“This is supposed to be good science, with the truth winning out rather than the team,” says Director of Studies and John E. Smith Jr. Distinguished Professor in Science Scott Saltman, who advised the team. “The Exeter presenters are very good. They had confidence that comes from practice but also knowing their projects inside and out. I think we’ve been successful because our intent is to show our knowledge of physics and our understanding of the solution and move that understanding forward.”

Teams have a year to prepare for the tournament. The Exeter team researched and tested four physics problems (read about the specific problems here). They presented on three: Brant led a discussion on extraterrestrial rainbows; Yu on Faraday’s homopolar generator; and Ye on the trajectory of a hammer. The team also tackled the fourth problem, designing and building a pneumatic tube mail system.

A passion for physics

This was Ye’s fourth year participating in USAYPT. He was on Exeter’s support team during his prep year then subsequently a presenter. As captain of the presenting team this year, he organized weekly lab meetings with teammates, helping them identify research sources and “cheering them up,” he says. “For members who are new to physics research, it can be a little scary.” He’s learned from experience to treat the competition like a friendly discussion enabling him to demonstrate his physics knowledge. “You hope you’ll be asked questions that allow you to show your deep understanding of a problem to the judges,” he says.

For Yu, a first-time tournament participant and presenter, attacking the homopolar generator problem with his teammates was a true collaboration—and fun. “It’s great to have different skill sets when we’re learning approaches to these problems,” he says. “I’m more of a theory person but Chris and Neil approached the problem from the perspectives of an engineer and builder. It was really helpful.”

Perhaps as important as the competition itself, USAYPT was an opportunity to meet new people. There were funny coincidences like meeting the Chinese team from the school where Tony Ye’s mother taught, and randomly meeting Principal Rawson’s brother at a Connecticut restaurant. Most exciting was connecting with their peers over science.

“I loved the whole process, from working on the problems to presenting,” says Brant. “It’s a nice team dynamic that we developed throughout the process. And you realize when you meet other teams how many connections you have through your shared passion for physics.”

Exeter will have a chance to further that passion next year, when the school hosts the 2020 USAYPT.