Next Friday-Saturday, February 4 and 5, I will be helping to run the 2011 US Invitational Young Physicist Tournament. Six teams from across the nation will converge on Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to discuss four research problems in ritualized debates.
If you're near Oak Ridge, stop by -- these debates are quite entertaining, even to a lay audience. But even if you're not able to attend, you might consider using some problems or ideas from the tournament.
All participating teams have been investigating three of four possible problems:
Dominos: "Numerous domino tiles are balanced on a table or floor with their long axis vertical with horizontal spaces that can be varied. When the first tile is knocked over a domino wave occurs. Predict and measure the speed of this wave and its dependence on various parameters.
Salt Water Oscillator: "Pour fresh water into tall container. Place a cup with a hole in its bottom surface on top of the fresh water. Prepare a solution of salt water and add some food coloring. Pour this solution into the cup on top of the fresh water and simultaneously push the cup down into the fresh water. Secure the cup so that the level of salt water is approximately the same as the level of fresh water. Observe the on-again and off-again flow of salt water into the fresh water. Predict the frequency of these oscillations from first principles, and compare to experiment. Investigate sizes of holes, salt concentrations, and other liquids."
Magic Motor: "Construct a DC motor without a commutator, using a single battery, a single permanent magnet, and a single loop of wire. Predict the frequency of rotation of this motor from first principles and compare to experiment."
Boiling Water: Some people say it is important to put a lid on the pot when you want to boil water for tea to save energy and time. Investigate this phenomenon.
What I love about these kinds of problems is that one could do a cursory experiment in a couple of lab periods. However, a deep theoretical understanding, coupled with a thorough experimental investigation, takes much more time and effort. And, there's enough issues to be investigated that different schools approaching the problems in different ways will have lots to talk about. That's how real physics works -- competing research groups publishing and sharing their own understanding of interesting problems.
I think of my school's team as a graduate research group. At the beginning of the year, I helped them figure out the correct experimental and theoretical approaches; I had to learn a lot about each problem, and then I had to *teach* what I had learned.
What was wonderful about today's final pre-tournament practice was that the students each said, "we don't need you right now." I know I've done a good job when the research group is ready and eager to work independently. They still had occasional questions, but the questions were of the style that professional physicists ask of one another -- not "you didn't tell me what to do, can I go to lunch?" :-)
I can go on and on about the USIYPT. In fact, several readers of this very blog are coming to the tournament next week, with the possible intent of forming their own team for 2012. If you'd like to hear more about the tournament, take a look at usaypt.org, or give me an email. After Feb. 6 I will post the tournament results here, and I'll mention NEXT year's problems. I can't wait to get my juniors started on those.