APS News

World Year of Physics Flies High At Young Scientist Challenge

GuenthnerPhoto Credit: James Riordon
Skateboarder Dennis Guenthner shows Young Scientist Challenge participants that even extreme athletes obey the laws of physics.
Photo Credit: Ernie Trekoff
APS Outreach Coordinator Jessica Clark explains to one of the Young Scientist Challenge teams that patting an Einstein doll on the head makes it easier to understand the theory of relativity.
Forty middle school students gathered at Cole Field House at the University of Maryland on October 25th and 26th to compete for prizes and scholarships in a series of challenges inspired by Einstein's physics.

These students, some of the best young scientists in the country, had excelled in their local science fairs to become finalists in the 6th Annual Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge.

In the "Extreme Einstein challenges," the students watched skateboarders and analyzed the g-forces, did a relativity experiment, and guided a laser beam through an obstacle course.

"This is awesome!", said Dustin Shea, 13, of Jacksonville, IL. The other students had similar reactions.

This year, in honor of the World Year of Physics 2005, several of the challenges related to physics. In one popular challenge, skaters—some riding "world year of physics" skateboards—skated on a half pipe, while the students captured acceleration data. The students made predictions about the g-forces on the skaters and then asked the skaters to perform tricks to test their predictions. James Riordon, APS Head of Media Relations, hosted the skateboard event.

APS Member John Gastineau, of Vernier Software and Technology, worked on the data capture equipment for the skateboard challenge. When he was first asked to work on the project, "I was a little apprehensive, because acceleration is something college freshmen have trouble with," he said. But these middle school students were able to handle the challenge. The video and analysis equipment allowed the students to see what's really going on, said Gastineau.

Another challenge required students to use radar guns to measure the relative velocity of two carts—one carrying an Einstein doll—as the carts zipped past each other across the stadium. Each group approached the problem differently, said APS outreach coordinator Jessica Clark, who hosted the event. "It's like a different challenge every time," she said.

In the laser obstacle course challenge, the teams had to arrange mirrors so the beam navigated the obstacles and hit a target. Other challenges included an event in which students tried to identify skulls and skeletons, another in which they used microscopes to identify various microorganisms, and one in which they tried to record their own version of Beethoven's fifth symphony on several weird instruments.

The forty finalists had worked hard to get to this event, but they clearly were enjoying the experience.

Blake Zwerling, 15, of Portland, OR, said she and her partner worked for over a year and a half on her science fair project, which tested the effect of psoralens—a class of photosensitive chemicals—on yeast. "I was reluctant to enter at first, but it's paid off," she said. After two days of science challenges, the students attended an awards ceremony, at which Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps made an appearance.

First place, a $15,000 scholarship, and the title "America's Top Young Scientist of the Year," went to Shannon McClintock, of San Diego, CA, whose science fair project was "The Little Engine That Could: Enhancing Traction Through Friction." Blake Thompson, of Gainesville, FL won second place, and David Westrich, of Cape Girardeau, MO, took third place.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette