Students take home awards at physics competition

A team of Helias Catholic High School students captured first place in the St. Louis Area Physics Teachers competition in late April.

Two students — senior Alex Frank and junior Bennett Rennier — won second and third places, respectively, in the Mechanics Division, which quizzes students on topics such as rotational momentum and kinetic energy. Two more students — seniors Margaret Morris and Sam Kreter — won honorable mentions.

In the Open Division — which tests not only the students’ mechanics knowledge, but also their understanding of magnetism and electricity — Bobby Zhang finished second in a field of 29.

The competition consisted of a two-hour multiple-choice test administered on the Washington University campus.

“I was really proud of the fact that everyone we took finished in the top 25 percent,” Helias physics teacher Matt Zeitz said.

The team was helped by competing in previous World Youth Science and Engineering competitions and studying for the Physics Advanced Placement exam, Kreter said. And Zeitz’s students complimented their teacher on his rigorous approach.

“He definitely prepares us really well,” Kreter said. “He doesn’t spoon feed the information.”

Frank was calm going into the test. “We’ve all done other physics competitions before,” Frank said.

The students were allowed to keep their tests after they finished them.

“No one was stumped, and we were all confident we were going to win. But we did spend the next hour arguing over the answers. I love that,” Kreter said. “Some of us were more right than others.”

Helias’ team understood the main physics concepts covered, Morris said, but irritating minor errors tripped them up.

“You might look at a 7 and think it’s a one,” Morris said. “It’s frustrating to make small mistakes.”

Kreter was proud of how well the team did, considering Helias’ students only take a semester of physics, instead of an entire year like other competitors.

Zeitz — who doesn’t entertain them with a lot of whiz-bang experiments to illustrate his points — expects a lot of his students.

“It’s not fun physics, but it’s good physics,” Morris said. “If you like math, it’s fun.”

“Sometimes we make our own fun physics to figure something out,” Kreter added.

Morris — who is planning to study physics at Brandeis University next fall — said she loves the way physics brings math into the real world.

Both Morris and Kreter said it’s a thrill to finally achieve a breakthrough in understanding after struggling over a particular problem for an hour. “When you finally get it, it’s an amazing feeling,” Kreter said. “It’s indescribable.”

And Kreter — who plans to study engineering at the University of Missouri this fall — marveled at the scientists who have gone before him. “It’s crazy to know how hard we’re working to figure out something” that another researcher discovered — with less coaching and assistance — centuries before, he said.

It was a busy weekend for the students. On Friday evening, they participated in Science and Math Day at Six Flags over St. Louis. Not only did they ride the roller coasters, they learned how they work. On Saturday, they participated in the competition, and on Sunday, they attended the Helias prom.

“Luckily, we were off school on Monday,” Kreter said.

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