October 30, 2017, BY Matt Hughes

JiaJia Dong
Professor JiaJia Dong, physics & astronomy, led the U.S. team's gold-medal performance at the International Physics Olympiad in Indonesia. Photo by Tim Sofranko

At the International Physics Olympiad last July in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, there wasn't a night when Bucknell Professor JiaJia Dong got to sleep before 3 a.m. In fact, a lot of late nights had brought her there.

As a senior coach, the physics & astronomy professor helped select the five competing members of the U.S. team from a pool of more than 5,000 high school students, then guided them through an intense two-week training camp in Maryland. Two weeks before the competition, she again travelled with the team, this time to Thailand, where America's aces continued their preparation for the competition's laboratory challenges.

Once in Indonesia, Dong and her fellow coaches spent their time at the Olympiad — a two-day exam consisting of theoretical and experimental questions, with a day of rest in between — translating exam questions and negotiating about the same with the contest organizers, a process taking between 10 and 16 hours for each phase of the test.

It was an exhausting process, but watching the smiles beam from her team's faces when it was all over made it more than worthwhile.

"Seeing the students getting what they wanted, feeling challenged and fulfilled — and making a whole bunch of friends and having a great time — it was all really rewarding," Dong said. "Watching them after it was all over, I thought, 'Oh, finally, they're kids again.' They had finished the intense competition stage, and could just hang out with their buddies and enjoy this exotic environment."

Bucknell Professor JiaJia Dong (standing) during the U.S. Physics Team's two-week training session at the University of Maryland. Photo courtesy of the American Association of Physics Teachers

Dong's team achieved an outstanding result. Three members finished with gold medals, placing them in the top 8 percent of test-takers, while the remaining two earned silver, meaning they finished in the top 25 percent. More than 400 students from more than 80 countries took part in the competition.

But Dong isn't resting on those laurels. Next year she will take over as academic director — essentially the head coach — and has high hopes not only for building on the U.S. team's successful run at the 2018 Physics Olympiad in Portugal, but also for increasing participation and interest in the competition at home.

"I think what our results say is that if you look at science education, the U.S. doing great at the top end," Dong said. "We still have brilliant students, but what we hope to do for the U.S. team is to have more and more students to participate at the early stages."

Difficult Choices
Dong, who has helped coach the team since 2009 and took part in the competition's early stages herself as a high school student in China, said she's also seen clear disparities in representation both among U.S. states and along gender lines, "something we are desperately trying to change."

Selecting members of the team is a multistage affair — an initial multiple-choice exam winnows the field from around 5,000 to 500, then the top 20 to 25 are chosen to attend the June training camp at the University of Maryland based on a written test that Dong and the other coaches hand-grade. The process is one that's filled with difficult choices, Dong said.

Members of the U.S. Physics Team prepare for competition during a training camp Dong helped to organize. Photo courtesy of the American Association of Physics Teachers

"We work very hard to bring in multiple female students in," Dong said. "That has gotten a little pushback from some high school teachers, because they might have a male student who scored the same, or maybe a little bit higher, than the female who was chosen. Why didn't he get in, but she did?

"What we tell them is that on these tests, when you score 90 out of 100 versus 91 out of 100, that doesn't mean you were one point better — there are statistical uncertainties and a margin of error," she continued. "And also, what do we want this team to be? We want them to be the best faces to represent the U.S. in physics, and part of it is not only numbers."

Crafting questions for exams and preparing the team for the competition also challenges Dong to engage with aspects of physics that aren't in her area of expertise, and to bring theoretical problems debated by doctoral-level researchers down to the level that high school students can engage with — without losing academic rigor. At the competition in Indonesia, problems involved the propagation of waves in a tsunami and their relation to earthquakes, as well as dark matter "and the essential components that we need to understand the beginning of the universe," Dong said.

Her coaching also informs her own teaching at Bucknell.

"I get to share some of the fun physics from the exams with my Bucknell students here," she said. "I tell them about the competition and the kind of problems they ask, then say, 'See if you can solve these problems. These are challenging problems, the sort that they might only see very late in their physics major, if at all. They see get to see what's out there."