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Cindy Fox Aisen

Last modified: Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Indiana students advance in prestigious Siemens Competition

Nov. 15, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- On Nov. 18-19, three suburban Indianapolis high school students will present physics research they conducted over the summer in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis as they compete against teams from 12 other states in regional finals of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology.

Winners of regional finals will compete in the national finals in Washington, D.C., next month. The nation's leading original research competition in math, science and technology for high school students, the Siemens (formerly Siemens Westinghouse) Competition awards college scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $100,000.

Students and Mentor

From left, Theja Bhamidipati, Harsha Vemuri, IUPUI School of Science assistant professor Yogesh Joglekar and Vaibhav Vavilala consider a physics problem before the students participate in the 2011 Siemens regional competition.

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Theja Bhamidipati, Vaibhav Vavilala and Harsha Vemuri, juniors at Carmel High School, are the only Indiana team to advance to regional finals. They are mentored by IUPUI assistant professor of physics Yogesh Joglekar, Ph.D., who has been working with high school, undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral fellows at IUPUI, for six years.

In addition to their oral and poster presentations for the Siemens Competition, the students co-authored a paper, "Dynamics, Disorder Effects, and PT-Symmetry Breaking in Waveguide Lattices With Localized Eigenstates," of which Joglekar is the senior author, in the peer reviewed Physical Review A. It is rare that high school students are among the co-authors of studies published in a top-tier professional physics journal.

At IUPUI, the teens studied specific properties of light in channels smaller than the width of a human hair in research that one day may contribute to advances in fiber optics. Explaining the theoretical physics problems they tackled in simplified lay terms, mentor Joglekar likens it to an investigation of light beaming down parallel channels or highway lanes. The students devised computer programs to determine how the light moved down the freeway lanes, predicting how the light changed after it traveled on a freeway with no on or off ramps, and what would happen if entrance and exit ramps existed that permitted amplification or absorption of light.

Each of the three students explored a specific problem focusing on what would happen to the light beam if there was an impurity in the lane, how light spread between lanes and what would be the result of absorption of light. "We enjoyed working together initially as well as splitting up to work on three separate problems," said Vavilala, who, like his teammates, had only one year of high school physics before embarking on the IUPUI summer project.

"Theoretical physics research has traditionally been beyond the capability of beginning physics students and is usually not tackled until the graduate level. But mathematical computing software with good user interfaces has enabled bright, computer-savvy high school and undergraduate students like these three to carry out original research," said Joglekar, a recipient of a 2009 Indiana University Trustees' Teaching Award.

Earlier this year Joglekar received a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation that supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and integration of education and research. With NSF support, he plans to continue to involve high school and IUPUI students in research and scholarly activities that emphasize the duality between textbook learning and research.

"Coming up with a good scientific question -- one that is both interesting and answerable -- is an important and challenging part of scientific research. Identifying a question that is interesting, and can be attacked by a group of high school students, is even more challenging," said Andrew Gavrin, Ph.D., chairman and associate professor of physics in the School of Science.

From the perspective of the high school students, they have learned a lot from their research at IUPUI, confirming their interest in the science careers each of the three has contemplated since elementary school. They became friends as preschoolers.

"All along the way, Professor Joglekar helped us understand the results we got and made us think about them," Vemuri said. "Learning about fundamental laws of physics is fun, and using them to solve problems is even better," Bhamidipati said.

A grant from the D.J. Angus-Scientech Educational Foundation made it possible for these high school students to conduct research in the physics department at IUPUI this summer. The foundation is an Indianapolis-based organization that encourages Indiana youth to study in science and technology. The foundation has made it possible for high school students to work in the School of Science's physics department each summer for the past nine years.

The School of Science at IUPUI is committed to excellence in teaching, research and service in the biological, physical, behavioral and mathematical sciences. The school is dedicated to being a leading resource for interdisciplinary research and science education in support of Indiana's effort to expand and diversify its economy. For more information, visit