A Weekend in Boston: Magnet Students at the Siemens Regional Finals

by Sophia Deng and Xinyi Zhou

Friday, October 23rd, 12:00 p.m.: In the Magnet computer lab, students are refreshing the Siemens webpage constantly. Rohan Puttagunta sees the results up first - and discovers that he is named a semifinalist. As the seniors frantically open the PDF file containing the winners' names, they discover that there are a total of 11 semifinalists (pdf) and three regional finalists (pdf) from the Blair Magnet Program. Immediately, Senior Research Project teacher Ms. Duval sends messengers out to tell the semifinalists and finalists of their achievements. Everyone is ecstatic, and the room fills with frenzy - these are the best results for Blair in the history of the Siemens Competition.

Seniors Puttagunta, Anand Oza, Nils Molina, Amy Xiao, Victoria Lai, Jeffery Lin, Allison Arai, Jacob Hurwitz, Kamal Ndousse, Elissa Shiau and Hongyi Xia were named Siemens semifinalists. Roger Curley, Dalton Wu and Jennifer Wang were named Regional Finalists. Curley and Wu worked together in a group project on adjusting atmospheric distortion in radio telescopes. Wang teamed with Grace Young from The Potomac School in McLean, VA on a project investigating methods for incorporating parabolic reflectors into particle traps. (read more about their projects here)

Although Duval sent messengers to tell all the semifinalists and finalists of their achievements, nobody could find Curley or Wu, who were on a Marine Biology field trip at the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. Luckily, semifinalist Allison Arai was on the same field trip, and she had her cell phone. A friend in the 5th period SRP class called to tell her the good news, and when she received the call, she was standing next to none other than Wu himself.

As Arai screamed with happiness at the news, Wu was admittedly clueless about Arai's erratic behavior. "She was jumping up and down so I decided to do that too," Wu recalls wryly. "Then I found out that I won too, so we kept jumping up and down."

When Wu told Curley later in the field trip, he didn't know what to believe, screaming "You're kidding!" Curley spent the bus ride back to Blair convinced it was "a massive practical joke." But when he got to school and saw it for himself, he knew it was no joke - he was a Siemens Regional Finalist.

To Boston!

As Regional Finalists, Wu, Curley and Wang would go to the next stage of the competition: The Region Five Finals were held on Nov. 5 - 7 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Siemens competition is divided into six regions, and finalists in each region compete to become national finalists, who compete for the overall top prize.

On Thursday evening, Nov. 5, Wu, Curley, Wang and Young boarded a plane to Boston. To their surprise, they were all on the same flight. Wang and Young were chaperoned by Young's robotics coach Bill Wiley, as well as her parents. Curley and Wu were accompanied by Wu's dad and Curley's mom.

After they unpacked at their hotel and ate dinner, both groups practiced their presentations over and over again, Wu and Curley staying up until 12:30 a.m. to do so. "That night we did some revision and printed out the script," Curley said. Wang and Young prepared even later into the night, leaving them both with only two hours of sleep.

With a 6:30 a.m. breakfast on Friday, the morning came too soon. This was followed by media training in the MIT Student Union, and then the teams set up their posters and ran through their presentations. The students were then filmed explaining their project in layman's terms. "We had to do an incredibly cheesy high-five for the camera," Curley humorously recalls. After lunch and a tour of the MIT campus, which Wang thought was "similar to the normal MIT tour" that she took over the summer, the students had to perform a practice run of their presentation. "We had to dress formal and give a 'Projection Exhibition' which was not going to be judged, but was just open to the public," Wu said.

Dinner was held at the MIT Faculty Club, where the students dined with "celebrities." Wu and Curley sat with the MIT director of admissions, Matt McGann, and Young and Wang sat with iRobot CEO Colin Angle. After dinner, the a drawing determined the order for the final presentations. "This was done by us picking MIT beaver plushies," Wu explained.

And so Friday ended as what Wu described as a "zero pressure day." "It felt like a good warm up day, because we did the practice presentation and we also practiced answering questions without having anything judged," he noted.

Competition Time

After a "zero pressure" Friday, it was showtime on Saturday: "We basically ate [breakfast] and went straight to the real presentations in formal attire," Wu recalls.

The presentation was open to the public, according to Wang. Unlike the "Project Exhibition" that wasn't judged, the final presentations were performed in front of 12 judges, including an expert on the topic of the presentation. Wang recalls that among the "huge row of judges," there was one physics judge and one math judge. Judges included professors and associate professors from MIT and Harvard. Five minutes of questions were conducted in a private room. Specifically, during Wang's presentation, she was asked to describe the photoelectric effect. Both the presentation and question session had "strict time limits," Wu explains.

During the presentation, both groups were nervous. Curley admits that "my legs were vibrating." Wang also acknowledges that she and Young could have performed better "if we had more time to practice." Overall, Wang thought that "it went very well."

After the exhausting presentations, the groups had lunch, and Wu and Curley took a well-deserved afternoon nap. Young and Wang, on the other hand, spent their break wandering around the MIT Media Lab. Both groups headed to the MIT museum for the awards ceremony, which Curley thought was painfully "protracted" before they announced the winners.

The results

The team winners at the regional competition were Benjamin Song and Jack Chen of Methacton High School in Eagleville, Pa. Although somewhat disappointed, the Blair crew was in good spirits. In fact, Wang, Wu and Curley were incredibly impressed by Song and Chen's winning project, "Development of a Urine Test for the Early Detection of Cancer," specifically of colorectal cancer.

After the competition, the students were finally able to relax. "I think before the real presentations we were polite to each other and everything, but didn't talk so much because of stress," Wu said. "Afterwards it was nice." They had dinner and at a closing student social, they mingled with each other and current MIT students, playing "Mafia" and eating ice cream until 1:00 a.m.

On Sunday, the students all headed back home. Although stressful, the competition was fun and even though they didn't win, Wu, Curley and Wang were all glad to have had the chance to compete and meet new people, and Wang still sleeps every night with the MIT beaver plushie from the drawing.