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NDSU student teams earn medals in physics competition

NDSU students recently excelled during the2018 University Physics Competition. One team earned a silver medal and two others received bronze medals in the contest held Nov. 9-11.

During the event, students were asked to solve one of two problems.

Problem A, “Sending a Light Sail-Propelled Nanocraft to Alpha Centauri,” proposed an ultralight spacecraft, with a mass of only a few grams, could be accelerated up to approximately 20 percent of the speed of light by pressure on a light sail from a ground-based array of lasers. Students were asked to analyze the spacecraft’s dynamics during acceleration and find the margin of error in its fabrication and the uniformity of the laser beam.

Problem B, “Compost Pile Sizes,” asked students to determine what pile size would result in the most efficient composting if the material was kitchen vegetable waste and the ambient temperature ranges between 5 and 20 degrees Centigrade during a 24-hour period. 

The students had 48 hours to solve their selected problem in this international contest for undergraduate student teams, who work at their home colleges and universities all over the world.

An NDSU student team, comprised of Reed Petersen, Sean Gunderson and Jacob Abrams, solved Problem A and was ranked on the silver medal level among the 185 teams that participated. Peterson is a senior and also in the accelerated master’s degree program. Gunderson is a senior and Abrams graduated in December.

Another NDSU group, seniors Matthew Kurtti and Brandon Molina, also solved Problem A and ranked at the bronze medal level.

The team of sophomores Matthew Schoenecker and Noah Seekins solved Problem B and ranked in the bronze medal level among the 96 teams that participated.

The top 2 percent of entries were recognized at the Gold Medal level. Silver Medals were awarded to the next best 18 percent, and Bronze Medal rankings went to entries in the following top 27 percent of submissions. NDSU's silver medal team was listed at position 10 among the 185 participating teams.

"It is amazing to see our physics students do so well in this competition,” said Sylvio May, professor and chair of physics. “I believe success on an international scale requires a high level of creativity and intellectual vitality. It is part of our departmental culture to include the majority of our undergraduate students into research projects with faculty. Quite a few of them co-author a publication before they graduate. Research is a high-impact activity that makes all the difference."

Gunderson described the contest as an opportunity to use students’ skills to solve real world challenges. “The whole goal is to find a creative solution to the competition’s questions, which are based off modern thought experiments, problems or proposals,” he said. “The solution won’t just involve a single area of physics like a college course would, so you have to pull knowledge from several areas and apply them properly. Each team member has a preferred topic they excel or specialize in, so it simulates a situation found in a professional setting.

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