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Over the last  fortnight I have had the honour of acting as a judge in both the regional and the national leagues of the New Zealand Young Physicist’s tournament, NZYPT. For those unfamiliar to the competition, it brings together teams of 3 secondary school students from around the country to present and debate a list of physics problems set by an international panel. These problems are about as far from ‘typical’ high school physics problems as it’s possible to get, for example here’s one of my favourites from this years list:

Cutting the air: When a piece of thread (e.g., nylon) is whirled around with a small mass attached to its free end, a distinct noise is emitted. Study the origin of this noise and the relevant parameters.”

I must admit – when I first encountered this problem I made the foolish mistake of thinking it simple. The student’s presentations soon cured me of that particular ailment! In order to compete students have about 12 minutes to present the results of their analysis of the particular problem, which they have been experimenting on for the past few weeks. This particular problem gets curly even BEFORE you get to the science as the questions can be approached several ways: What’s a ‘small’ mass? What – exactly – is meant by ‘noise? What size is the string? And then, of course, there’s the question of what causes the sound, where the sound comes from (imagine a PÅ«rerehua), which types of sound do you analyse etc. The problem quickly becomes highly complicated and counter-intuitive. Yet that’s not why I chose to blog about NZYPT – rather what is worth mentioning is the incredible quality of the students who participate.

In the above problem, much of the noise is produced by phenomena known as vortex shedding caused by air flowing around the string, creating patterns of high and low pressure that produce sound waves. However, the frequency of sound produced depends on the speed of the string through the air, and the speed of the string changes depending on its distance from the point where the string is being swung. So a whole mess of frequencies of sounds are produced. What amazes me is that students actively analysed these using free software like audacity and advanced mathematical tricks like fourier analysis and understood exactly what they were doing was! This is an incredible level of detail for any student, let alone a high school student, to say nothing of the fact that when I was that age I couldn’t even spell ‘fourier’.

The great thing about NZYPT is that it not only encourages excellence in science, but excellence in communication. It builds confidence and encourages critical thinking. It promotes students designing experiments or simulations that are slightly ‘outside the box’ and , most important of all, it’s a great deal of fun! Sadly participation from many schools is hindered because of focus on scholarship exams or other assessment.  Personally, I think it’s tragic that a competition that clearly teaches so many relevant skills to future scientists, is seen to ‘distract’ from assessment rather than benefiting it. (But that a whole other argument!)

The only criticism I have, is not of the competition itself, but the followup. Now the nationals are over, the New Zealand team is preparing to travel to Germany to compete in the international tournament later in the year. NZ has an amazing track record placing in the top 3 countries in the world the last 5 times they have entered. However, ALL the entrants I saw were top quality thinkers and presenters – it was certainly not limited to those selected for the NZ team! – and my concern is that we may be sending the wrong message to the students that didn’t quite make it. In my view they should all be commended for the huge amount of work they have put in, and the understanding they have gained. Hopefully they are all at least considering pursuing careers in physics (I’m certain if they did they would go onto do more great things). EVERY participant is an asset to New Zealand, and should be acknowledged as such. I’ll be inviting the Wellington participants to participate in the upcoming Kiwimars expedition too, to help them realise how important they are whether they made the team or not! And I look forward to judging next year – should I be fortunate enough to be invited back.

For more info on the competition, sponsorship, the NZ team or problems take a look at the NZYPT website