High school students conducting research in physics and engineering at Pioneer use a variety of approaches to contribute new knowledge

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High school students conducting research in physics and engineering at Pioneer

Pioneer scholars use a number of strategies to conduct research in the fields of physics, engineering, and astronomy. With the help of computer programs, it is possible to simulate complex experiments without the use of a laboratory. Other students capitalize on existing data and use it to answer a new question, or analyze it in a new way by constructing an original equation. Scholars in engineering and related research areas may take a practical approach to research, designing an invention that solves a problem. Still other Pioneer scholars take an interdisciplinary approach, tying in philosophy or other humanities to theories in physics or astronomy. 

Using a computer simulation to model an experiment 

Pioneer scholars may not have access to laboratories, but computer programs make it possible to conduct experiments from anywhere in the world. Macdonald (engineering, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from Zimbabwe, sought to use biomedical engineering to develop an inexpensive and rapid genetic-based biosensor to detect casein (αs1-CN) and β-lactoglobulin, which are the main allergens in cow’s milk allergy. “I wanted to research an inexpensive real-time detection tool to solve the problem of acute reactions due to accidental exposure to allergens and help alleviate the anxiety of people with cow’s milk allergies when eating food in restaurants with unknown handling procedures,” he explains. In pursuit of this goal, he used data from a variety of sources to create simulated experiments. “I proposed a hypothetical experiment and used BioRender to create scientific figures and illustrations of the biosynthetic detector. Referencing data from other existing research papers, I used computational modeling from tools such as SeqBuilder to create simulations where I could draw results for analysis and make conclusions,” he says.

Vihn (astronomy/physics, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from the United States, also used a computer program to create a simulation. Vinh read through papers about LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) and found an aspect he could verify himself using the computer tools available to him. He chose to evaluate noise contamination. “I used Python to simulate noise contamination of data and I used that to evaluate matched filtering search algorithms. The data sources I used were both self-generated data as well as real past data from LIGO themselves,” he says. 

Johnelle (materials science, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from the United States, was tasked with either designing a new material or improving the efficiency of an existing material. Johnelle chose to work on improving the efficiency of carbon nanotubes for carbon capture, specifically focusing on semiconducting single-walled carbon nanotubes.“As an engineer, I was really drawn to mechanical and electrical properties. I knew I wanted to do something with nanotechnology… Because nanotechnology is fairly new, I was able to build an original research question around it by looking at prior research,” she says. Rather than working directly with carbon nanotubes, Johnelle made use of a computer simulation to test her designs. “I tested some of the input parameters such as chirality indices and the spacing between carbon atoms to compute the most important structures of the nanotubes: the diameter and band gap. Larger band gaps indicate less conducting potential so my methodology was based on finding a middle ground: a band gap not too wide but also not too short,” Johnelle explains.

Using existing data to answer an original question 

Scholars do not necessarily need to create new data to conduct original research. Rather, existing data from previous papers can be analyzed in a novel way and used to answer an original question. Jack (astronomy, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from China, used data from previous research papers to create an equation that would answer his research question. Jack’s research focuses on extremely dense stars known as white dwarfs. Synthesizing previous research on both white dwarfs and dark matter, Jack sought to explain how such dense objects could remain stable, rather than further collapsing. He looked at how various factors might impact the balance of white dwarfs, including gravity and the force exerted by electrons, magnetic fields and dark matter. Taking these factors into account, he designed a theoretical equation to describe the balance of white dwarfs, which improves the previous models of white dwarfs.

Alejandra (biophysics, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from Colombia, used data from previous papers to set up an equation. Her research explored a sensor in the cell membrane of neurons that opens or closes depending on the voltage around the cell. “In my paper, I wanted to do two things. First of all, set up an equation that would describe, in a simplified way, the conditions under which the [neuron sensors] are more likely to open… After that, my paper looked to find out how effective that opening and closing was. So, if the channel opens and closes, does it actually tell the cell something, or is it too random to send useful information?” she explains.

Using a computer simulation to model an experiment

Finding innovative solutions to a problem 

Some Pioneer scholars use their research to find a practical solution to a problem. Nabaa (robotics/engineering, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from the United States, noticed a problem: elderly patients often have trouble remembering when to take their medication. In her work at Pioneer, she engineered a solution to this problem. “[In many research areas,] it’s normal to research things and then find a solution. In engineering, it’s actually the opposite. I first identified a problem, then I made sketches and thought about sensors and what would contribute to making my machine work. Then, I researched past inventions and proposals, and I actually researched the problem—why do the elderly have trouble taking their medication? Is it because there’s too much medicine? Is it because the times are spread throughout the day? Through my research, I found that it was just an age problem—they didn’t have the proper organizational skills. I looked at other similar inventions to mine and pulled elements to make my own final product,” she explains. 

Mila (engineering, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from North Macedonia, was interested in Planck’s Constant, a numerical value that sets a specific fitting parameter for physical interactions at the quantum scale and usually requires very expensive equipment to measure. Mila wondered if the basic equipment that her cohort was using during their group sessions would be able to do the calculations in a useful way. Her initial results were so encouraging that her professor suggested she expand on her work as her Pioneer research topic. “In the group sessions, we got the arduino kit, which is usually used in small robots. Because we were all new to this area of programming, we learned how to program in that language and how to use the different components of the arduino kit. We also learned how to perform a data analysis on our data, and Fourier transforms, which is another tool to understand the data we get when we perform our experiment. I collected a lot of data with light emitting diodes (LEDs), and then I did some calculations to calculate Planck’s constant. All of that data was graphed and everything was done with the knowledge I got from the group sessions,” Mila explains. The result of her experiment was a practical application that will make it possible for students and researchers without access to very sophisticated equipment to calculate and use this basic concept satisfactorily with very inexpensive tools.

Taking a philosophical approach 

Some Pioneer scholars choose to grapple with more philosophical questions in physics and astronomy. Youssef (astronomy, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from the United States, did just that. His paper took a philosophical approach to an issue in astronomy, applying calculations about the expansion of the universe to the expansion of the human population, in an attempt to bridge the gap between social science and astrophysics. “I think one of the most unique aspects of my paper was that it did not have to follow an extremely scientific path. In my paper, I talk about the implications that my calculations make and how religion, culture, race, and social issues would be affected by the inflationary growth of the human population if we do not make an active effort to switch it to a steady-state model. It is a paper that both astrophysicists, as well as the general public, could read, understand, and benefit from. It is relevant to everyone,” Youssef says. 


With innovative strategies and digital tools, Pioneer scholars are capable of conducting complex, original research in physics and engineering from anywhere in the world. Whether innovating new solutions to problems, exploring the mysteries of the cosmos, or using a computer simulation to investigate the properties of a material, Pioneer scholars participate in a global learning community and make original contributions to our body of knowledge.

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