Physics whiz kids headed for Singapore championships

Physics students from Octorara High School are big winners in the Young Physicists Tournament. As a result, two of them and their coach will be going to Singapore this summer to compete for the world championship. From left are Emily Solomon, Anna Cassidy, Coach Bill Watters and Natalie Mowrey.
Physics students from Octorara High School are big winners in the Young Physicists Tournament. As a result, two of them and their coach will be going to Singapore this summer to compete for the world championship. From left are Emily Solomon, Anna Cassidy, Coach Bill Watters and Natalie Mowrey. Chris Barber — digital First Media

WEST FALLOWFIELD >> Two bright physics students from Octorara High School are headed to Singapore in July for what is known as the “Physics World Cup.” They will be competing against other high school physics champions from 31 other countries.

The students, Anna Cassidy, 18, of Cochranville; Emily Solomon, 17, of Atglen, earned their positions on the United States team at a competition held at the Chester County Intermediate Unit in April by placing first and second in points. Their classmate, Natalie Mowery, 17, of Parkesburg came in fourth and is an alternate for the team.

The formal name of the event which is taking them half way around the world is the International Young Physics Tournament. It pits some of the best physics students by nation against each other, testing their skill at solving scientific problems that as yet have no exact solution. The format is similar to that of presenting the oral aspect of a dissertation for a doctoral degree.

The teams are given a list of 17 identical physics problems. In the year they must prepare experiments, document their work and be ready to be formally interrogate on their results. They must also interrogate other students on their results. The winners are determined by judges and points.

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Making it to the Physics World Cup is not operated like a single elimination athletic tournament, nor do all schools compete. In fact, in Chester County, five schools began the journey, but three dropped out with only Octorara and Phoenixville remaining, coach and physics teacher Bill McWatters said.

The reason this national competition landed in Chester County is that Phoenixville physics teacher Jay Jennings has been interested in it for a long time, even though in the 30 years it has been going on, the United States has participated only sporadically.

But recently Jennings set about to get it organized locally and sent invitations to schools to participate. He got some results this year. Octorara and Phoenixville jumped in, as did St. Timothy’s in Maryland. Additionally, several schools in California became part of it by sending in videos and, in effect, the Chester County Intermediate Unit has become the center for this competition.

As a results of doing so well in the original round, Cassidy, Solomon and McWatters will be traveling to Singapore. There will also be three or four other students (including one from Phoenixville and two from California) plus a woman from the Chester County Intermediate and a professor from the University of the Sciences as part of the U.S. delegation.

At Octorara, the students work intensely on solving the problems to the point where their schedules are full and they often stay up late at night to keep up with schoolwork.

Cassidy said she even thinks about the physics problems and solutions when she’s in bed.

“We have spent more than 1,500 hours on it so far,” McWatters said.

Around the physics classroom at Octorara are wires, platforms, devices, computers and gears, all set up to conduct experiments in motion, weight and time.

Although each physics team in the competition has to be prepared to present answers to all 17 questions, the kids have divided up specialties. In this case, the members from California and zeroed in on several while the Octorara kids have specialised in the rest.

One that is getting a lot of attention from the Octorara team is called the Metronome Synchronization. They have to devise experiments and carry them out to determine why two metronomes place beside each other on a low friction platform work themselves into synchronized behavior within a matter of minutes.

Another that they have constructed is called the Vacuum Bazooka, which involved building a device with a simple plastic pipe, a light projectile and a vacuum cleaner to achieve a maximum muzzle velocity using atmospheric pressure.

The team members are coming down the home stretch now, and preparing for the week-long competition from July 5 through 12.

The girls from Octorara are excited.

Cassidy has investigated Singapore thoroughly and has found that it is an city-state in Southeast Asia just 1 degree of latitude above the equator on the southern tip of peninsular Malaysia. It will be hot and humid — they know that. They expect to be staying at the University there and will be mingling with people of various nationalities. In the competition itself, everyone will be speaking English, Cassidy said.

Both Cassidy and Emily Solomon — seniors — have been accepted to college.

Cassidy will be going to University of Pennsylvania, and Solomon will be attending the University of Pittsburgh.

Mowrey is a junior.

The cost of the registration, which includes plane fare and the event itself is bring borne by the five schools in Chester County that initially made a commitment to participate as well as donations.

The International Young Physics Tournament was founded 30 years ago in Russia to encourage scientific research among high school students. The United States has participated only sporadically since then.

About the Author

Chris Barber

Chris Barber is the editor of the Avon Grove Sun. She was previously southern bureau chief of the Daily Local News and editor of the Kennett Paper, earning honors in writing and photography. Reach the author at agsun@kennettpaper.com .