March 22, 2023

Young STEM Aficionados Make Their Mark in Two Popular PPPL Events

SCIENCE BOWL CHAMPIONS: Princeton Charter School (PCS) won its fifth state championship in six years in the middle school division of last month’s New Jersey Regional Science Bowl at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. From left are coach Laura Celik and PCS team members Audrey Huang, Gavin Macatangay, Aaron Wang, Amelie Huang, and Rohan Srivastava. (Photo courtesy of Princeton Charter School)

By Donald Gilpin

Area students have displayed their passion and prowess in the world of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering in two recent high-profile events sponsored by Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).

On March 16, more than 700 young women from seventh to 10th grade participated in the PPPL Young Women’s Conference in STEM at Princeton University, and on February 25 two Princeton schools — Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science (PRISMS) in the high school division and Princeton Charter School (PCS) in the middle school division — took home top honors in the New Jersey Regional Science Bowl at PPPL.

The PRISMS and PCS teams will be traveling to Washington, D.C. to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Science Bowl April 27 to May 1.

With 32 high school teams from across the state competing in last month’s competition, the PRISMS team of Justin Feder, Josh Shi, Yichen Xiao, Heyung Ni, and Yiji Wang prevailed over High Technology High School of Lincroft in the final round. Princeton High School (PHS) came in third.

“I’m overjoyed by our recent win, the most exciting competition I have ever participated in,” said PRISMS coach Steven Chen, director of academics, chemistry teacher, and research mentor at PRISMS. “The students’ rigorous preparation and tenacity paid off.”

The team bounced back from an early loss with nine straight victories. “Their unwavering spirit and teamwork led to a series of close wins, including a rematch against a previous opponent,” added Chen. 

“I’m very tired but excited,” said PRISMS team captain Feder after the final. “It was a very tough contest. I was expecting a few teams of this caliber, but I feel every team was excellent.”

Feder will be going to the Washington, D.C. national bowl for the fourth time after winning previous contests as a PCS student. Other PCS alumni were also members of the PHS team at this year’s state championship.

Competing against 15 other teams in the middle school division, the PCS team of Audrey Huang, Gavin Macatangay, Amelie Huang, Aaron Wang, and Rohan Srivastava defeated the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional Middle School squad in the final round. It was PCS’s fifth New Jersey Science Bowl victory in the past six years. 

“The tournament was very challenging this year,” said PCS coach and science teacher Laura Celik. “There were really strong teams — really talented.”

Celik, who has coached all of the PCS Science Bowl teams over the past six years, commented on the school’s remarkable success. “Last year after we came in second place — we’d won four in a row and then we got second — the kids emailed me and said, ‘We’ve got to keep practicing.’ So we took a couple of weeks off and started practicing again in the spring. We even got together for four or five practice sessions on Zoom over the summer. We kept it going and started right away in September.”

She continued, “We learn a lot of science during the school day, and the students know I care and I take my role seriously and they do too. I’m lucky I’m the seventh and eighth grade science teacher here. I teach all of these students, and I get to know them over two years.”

This year’s Science Bowl celebrated the return to an in-person event after a two-year hiatus in which contestants answered questions individually online. “It was great having people back,” said organizer Deedee Ortiz, PPPL science education program manager. “The kids are much more enthusiastic since they’ve been away for so long.”

Twenty-one PPPL volunteers for the middle school event and 27 for the high school event assisted with the proceedings, including PPPL Director Steve Cowley, who was the science moderator for the final round. “It’s just really fun,” he said. “These are extremely smart kids. It’s a great event.”

Young Women’s STEM Conference

The March 16 convocation, held at the University’s Frick Chemistry Laboratory building and Richardson Auditorium, was the first time the event has been held in person since 2019, with the largest number of attendees in the 21-year history of the Young Women’s Conference in STEM.

“These young women were just excited to be outside again and be around a group of their peers and learn some really cool science,” said Ortiz, as quoted in a PPPL press release.

There were 22 exhibitors, including the F.B.I. Evidence Response Team, General Atomics of San Diego, the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, and the Seward Johnson Atelier. The PPPL presented a number of hands-on plasma demonstrations, including the (literally) hair-raising Van de Graaff generator.

The event also included a career panel with early-career female scientists, in which the scientists discussed their own careers and answered questions from audience members.

“It’s so cool, so fun,” said Princeton Charter School student Jiayi Li in the press release. “The career panel was really interesting. There was one woman who was majoring in plasma physics and dance.”

During the day’s proceedings, juniors who excel in math and science received awards from PPPL’s Women in Engineering employee resource group, and those students will be mentored during their senior year of high school as they apply to colleges.

Keynote speaker for the Young Women’s Conference in STEM was Liz Hernandez-Matias, a scientist and senior education specialist of Ciencia Puerto Rico, a nonprofit focused on scientific careers, communication, and education in Puerto Rico.