How can international STEM outreach be improved? What are the best ways to teach experimental sciences in high schools and increase students’ interest in research? MIT students have recently found that the International Young Physicists’ Tournament (IYPT) may be the answer.
For more than a quarter-century, IYPT has been an internationally acclaimed physics competition among high school students from over 30 countries. Each year, teams of students solve a set of problems released by the competition. They conduct experiments and collect data in the manner of real scientific research. The problems are always open-ended and require an application of concepts to hands-on experiments, in areas ranging from fluid dynamics to optics to classical mechanics. The winning national team goes on to the international round, which is held in a different country every year. Team presentations on their solutions are judged by international scientists and educators.
The teams that make it from regional competitions to the final international competition typically come from countries where STEM education, outreach, and resources are extremely developed. In the past four years, these have included Germany, Singapore, Switzerland, China, Taiwan, Poland, Slovakia, and South Korea. At present, students from Team Brazil are the only representatives in the international competition from South America.
Transforming the Chilean STEM and physics education system
In 2015, the MIT-Chile Program and then-senior and physics major Andrei Klishin '15 launched the first IYPT in Santiago, Chile. While this new local group is not yet eligible for international competition, it was created to introduce Chilean students to the format of IYPT and to inspire local universities to take charge and both host an official IYPT and search for funding to be able to compete internationally.
“After I came back from [the Global Teaching Labs program in] Mexico, I started thinking how to combine the IYPT format of physics outreach and competition with my nascent interests in Spanish language and Latin America and with resources available through the MISTI programs,” Klishin says. “I toyed with ideas of pulling together a localized IYPT in several different countries, but the perfect constellation of interest, guidance, and resources came from MISTI’s MIT-Chile Program and the program manager, Erika Korowin. This allowed us to organize the first-of-a-kind IYPT startup project in a new country.”
Six teams from two top high schools in Santiago participated in the local tournament. Each team received experimental science, public speaking, and teamwork training from one of the six participating MIT mentors. Students worked for six weeks on experiments and presentations, culminating in a one-day round of “Physics Fights” at a local science museum.
Now, the IYPT initiative has morphed into a much bigger endeavor. Led by Alexandra Churikova ’16, the initiative currently consists of a collaboration between MIT and two universities in Santiago — the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (UC) and the University of Santiago, Chile (USaCh).
This year, seven teams of students — 35 participants in total — from five schools throughout the Santiago Metropolitan Region participated in the tournament. The teams had access to experimental lab space and equipment at each university, thanks to the generosity of the staff and students at UC and USaCh. Three mentors from MIT — materials science and engineering grad student Alexandra Churikova, civil and environmental engineering grad student Galym Saparbaiuly, and physics sophomore Tanya Llanas — as well as a collaborator from Cornell University — Josué San Emeterio — joined with mentors from USaCh to guide the teams in their projects.
The first day of IYPT began with a team activity where the students competed to build the most structurally sound mechanism of water transportation. The activity took place in the courtyard of USaCh and emphasized the team-building skills that would be needed in success of the tournament — and any STEM career.
“This is really a one-of-a-kind outreach event in the country,” says Churikova. “Professors and students alike stopped to observe the teams. They were surprised, and many came up to ask what the event was and why there were a bunch of high school student building things, drawing diagrams and debating with each other. They had never seen anything like it!”
IYPT collaborator and USaCh professor of physics Marina Stepanova, who helped with the organization of the first IYPT nearly 30 years ago in Russia, admits that she “could have never imagined that a few years later, [she] would arrive to Chile, and a few decades, the tournament would arrive to Chile.” She is most looking forward to the impact IYPT will have on the Chilean STEM education and society in general.
“In this second tournament, there are kids from very many different places. There are kids from high social levels, and other kids from really poor neighborhoods,” reflects Stepanova, who was the organizer IYPT 2016 in USaCh, “There was no problem with this — nobody cared about who is who. The unique way to communicate was physics.”
She believes that IYPT will cause a real impact on education in Chile — “maybe not immediately, but definitely in at least five years.”
After five weeks of intense preparation and workshops by the mentors, the teams prepared their presentations, much in the manner of conference-style talks. The event was open to the public and took place at UC’s San Joaquín campus from morning to late afternoon. Four physics professors from UC, USaCh, and the Universidad of Chile were present to evaluate the teams’ performance.
An impact on teachers and students alike
IYPT collaborator and tournament judge Professor Maximiliano Montenegro from UC’s College of Education, was “impressed by the level of communication skills and the deep physics knowledge that the students showed at the tournament, and [believes] that it was a true learning experiences for both the students and the judges.”
Montenegro is also excited for the collaboration between the UC College of Education and IYPT, as the tournament reflects key goals of the department.
“School teachers, graduate students, and professors are working together to offer a real science experience to high school students,” Montenegro says. “In [our program], the College of Education of UC is working close-hand with the colleges of life science, physics, chemistry, and math to offer the best learning experience to our future math and science teachers. In [IYPT], high school students not only learn content knowledge, but also learning about scientific practices.”
Indeed, the participating students’ physics teachers have expressed their excitement with IYPT as a motivator for their students and a more “show-not-tell” teaching method. Teachers Fabián Espinoza from the National Institute and Yasna Hurtado from Complejo Nacional Consolidada plan to continue to encourage their students to participate in this “enriching experience for students, from which everyone gained much experience.”
The final tournament was fueled with much anticipation and excitement. Dressed in formal attire, students congregated in teams to anticipate questions from the other team members, and anxiously awaited their turns to present their results. The day before, they had worked for over six hours to complete and practice their presentations, many motivated to strive for professionalism and perfection. Mentors also worked non-stop to help students with last-minute data analysis.
“It was an innovative experience in our country, with warm company and physics at the palm of our hands. This was extremely rewarding,” commented one student after the tournament.
There were seven presentations and question sessions in total. The winning teams presented their solutions to problems in classical mechanics (calculating the frictional forces necessary to pull apart interleaved books), physical chemistry (exploring the dynamics of ultrahydrophobic bubbles), and fluid dynamics (vortex dynamics). After six hours of presentations and intense discussions, the day culminated in an award ceremony and social gathering.
“What was most incredible is that not only did we reach a new level of scientific knowledge, but also more social and personal growth,” says another participant.
There is no doubt IYPT introduced skills critical in the STEM workplace, but also in any professional career: Eighty-nine percent of surveyed students "agreed completely" that they learned to work better as team during IYPT. A full 100 percent of surveyed students believe that IYPT will help them in their future physics or science studies, and feel they have a better understanding of the research process and scientific method. All participants also reported they became better public speakers.
“IYPT is a fantastic experience; I met new incredible people from all parts of the world,” says Víctor Ugarte, a 10th grade student from a National Institute team that came in 7th place. “We’ll be back for revenge next year!”
The organizers are working hard to make it happen. IYPT collaborator Professor Victoria Velarde from UC’s College of Education, who was mainly responsible for launching the IYPT in UC, hopes for a continuation of the tournament in 2017. The next steps were carefully outlined at a plenary meeting in August.
“If everything goes smoothly, we are hoping to launch the third annual IYPT Chile in January 2017,” Churikova says. “We want to get even more students, more schools, and more local teachers involved this time. The winning team might have a chance to advance to the international competition in Singapore if we can secure the funds in time.”
This event was made possible by the MIT-Chile Program through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives and the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; the MIT Department of Physics and chair, Professor Peter Fisher; the EASE Fellowship; the Eloranta Fellowship; and the Carroll L. Wilson Fellowship.