Stoking Physics Love, Childhood Passions, and More!
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Physics, a required class for all Stuyvesant juniors, is a polarizing subject. Students tend to either love or hate it, chiefly because physics is highly mathematical. It requires challenging math skills that aren’t typically found in science classes such as biology, environmental science, or chemistry. For students who don’t have a lifelong passion, physics is a class that many struggle through. However, there are many who thoroughly enjoy the subject, for all of its quirks and challenges.
During the summer of 2019, senior Andrew Binder and junior Alvin Li co-founded a club aimed to foster a love for physics in students who have little to no experience with the subject. Given Stuyvesant’s status as a STEM-oriented school, Binder and Li were disappointed that many students did not appreciate physics. “Seeing a STEM school like Stuy that prides itself on how much it values STEM education and how prestigious its Math Team is, it was kind of jarring to see that there was no Physics Team,” Binder said. Although anti-physics sentiments may be pervasive among the student body, both Li and Binder remain undeterred.
Since their childhood, Binder and Li have always gravitated towards the subject. Li described his interest in physics as a byproduct of being interested in math. “You get to apply a lot of the things you learn in mathematics, most notably calculus, trig[onometry], geometry, and some linear algebra at more advanced points,” he said. He always liked science because of the theory and logic behind it, but was not particularly attracted to biology or chemistry because they left many phenomena unexplained. “I feel like physics is really the root of everything because chemistry builds upon physics, and then biology builds upon chemistry,” he said.
Binder shares a similar start in physics. He poked fun at Li, saying “I’m not so sure about [Li], but when I was a child, I wasn’t very well-versed in calculus and linear algebra. I remember [...] accidentally finding some of Brian Greene’s older NOVA documentaries on PBS.” After that spark was ignited, Binder began to watch as many documentaries and read as many books as he could, finding inspiration in scientists such as Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson. However, he was just a child, which meant that he couldn’t do much with this new passion. “Unfortunately, y’know, being a nine-year-old kid at that point, I didn’t possess enough mathematical knowledge to be able to actually study physics, so it was a very superficial type of passion that I wasn’t sure how I could act on,” he laughed.
At Stuyvesant, Binder finally got the math education needed to propel his interest forward. Later on, he met Li due to a shared interest in creating a club centered around physics. Chartering the club was easy, but when it came to recruiting members, Binder and Li faced problems. The first among them was a lack of interest among students. “What I’ve observed at Stuy [...] is that people get discouraged from sciences such as physics because we only study it for a year. That means that a lot of people get lost in the science because they have to rush through it [and t]hat leaves a really sour taste in [their] mouths,” Binder explained. He contrasted that with how most students study math for all four years at Stuyvesant, which gives them more time to appreciate the subject. Senior Leon Ma added to this sentiment by saying that students were not informed about the F=ma exam until they were juniors, which left them with little preparation time for the test. The F=ma is the qualifying exam for the United States Physics Olympiad (USAPhO).
Other problems arose from the fact that the club was newly established, and therefore not many students knew about it. “Joining the club was very word of mouth,” Binder said. Because the club wasn’t very established, Li and Binder told people that there were meetings occurring, and people agreed to come, but ultimately did not show up.
In terms of how the Physics Team functions, Li and Binder drew inspiration from the structure of Math Team. Binder and Li recognized that there are some physics students who have more experience than others and may feel unchallenged by the basics. However, they didn’t want to discourage students who are newer to the subject. As a result, they created two teams. “We call them, affectionately, Team Einstein and Team Newton,” Binder said.
Team Einstein is for students with at least a year’s experience with high-school mechanics and an understanding of calculus. It is led by Dr. Michael Kagan, a physics professor from Penn State, and former coach of the United States Physics Team from 2015 to 2016. The United States Physics Team is one of the highest level physics competitions, where approximately 20 students are selected to represent the United States in the International Physics Olympiad. Connecting with Dr. Kagan was a long journey. Because Binder only has one year left at Stuyvesant, he knew he could not lead the team for very long. “I plan on graduating,” he explained, jokingly. “When I started thinking about how to make this team more sustainable, one of the biggest things involved finding a coach.” However, none of the physics teachers at Stuyvesant were willing to commit to leading a team, nor were they experienced in preparing students for physics competitions. “[When we found him, w]e thought ‘Yes, this is the man. This is the one that we want,’” Binder said. On the other hand, Team Newton is coached by Binder and Li. It is geared towards students with little to no experience in high-school mechanics. “Team Einstein meets twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, [while] Team Newton meets once a week on Tuesdays,” Binder explained.
Last year, meetings were held in-person, with only one team. The combination of switching to virtual learning and having an onslaught of new members proved to be a challenge. Recorded lectures are held over Zoom where many people do not turn their cameras on. Because members are just little black boxes on Li and Binder’s screens, neither know whether members are truly engaged, paying attention, or even in the room.
Outside of club meetings, communication, which previously occurred through a Facebook Messenger group chat, is now done through a Discord server. The group chat was considered too messy because it was often cluttered with random messages. Members of each team are assigned roles of “newton,” “einstein,” “teacher’s assistant (TA),” or “captain.” These roles give them access to their respective team’s channels.
Members of Team Einstein are offered positions of TAs, which grants access to both text channels. Ma is a part of Team Einstein, and is a TA for Team Newton. When asked why, he explained, “Teaching is fun sometimes. It’s nice to teach kids and also, [Li] [...] suggests that I [...] help him [and] help the little kids.” Like Li, Ma’s interest in physics stemmed from an interest in mathematics. “I would say it came from liking math puzzles, but math was too abstract for me,” he said. “So, I preferred physics puzzles because [...] they had a basis in real life, as opposed to math. [F=ma primarily focuses on mechanics and] you experience mechanics every single day [...] so it’s a good exercise to apply stuff that you intuitively know is true,” he said.
Since the formation of the club, Li and Binder feel they have grown immensely as leaders. The bulk of the club’s preparation work was done over this past summer so that they could have a slightly easier time during the school year. Not only did they compile over 100 pages of notes, but they also created a website and a YouTube channel. Despite these efforts, Li and Binder still spend 15 to 20 hours a week on the club, mainly writing and grading problem sets and filling in lecture notes.
Despite only being a year old, the Physics Team has already been very successful. Ma qualified for USAPhO last year, along with three other students, Yevgeniy Gorbachev (‘20), Ivan Galakhov (‘20), and senior Keyvon Maybody. In terms of members, the club has also grown significantly from its one team of five members to two distinct teams of 33 members in total. Because of this growth, Binder’s aspirations for the club are high. “There is a community that cares about physics; there’s a community that values the importance of physics education. Let’s grow, and let’s expand. Hopefully, we can even inspire some sort of New York City Physics Team in the coming years,” he concluded.