Challenging Minds

Dr. Tengiz Bibilashvili

Dr. Bibilashvili recognized for his work with USAYPT

CCS Physics and UCSB Department of Physics faculty member Dr. Tengiz Bibilashvili’s dedication to challenging the minds of young, passionate scientists through friendly competition spans three decades and multiple continents. Recently, his commitment was recognized when the United States Association of Young Physicists Tournament (USAYPT) named “The Bibilashvili Award for Excellence in Physics” in his honor.  The USAYPT is an organization he co-founded in 2007 and for which he is currently the Program Director. The Tournament is an annual two-day physics competition where teams of four students from high schools across the country and around the world debate on a set of problems that they have worked on in the months leading up to the event.

Dr. B., as his students call him, got his start in competitive physics tournaments in 1993 when he coached the Georgian national team to the gold medal of the International Young Physicists Tournament (IYPT). When Bibilashvili relocated to the U.S. in 2004, he became a coach for the American IYPT team for four years before founding the USAYPT.

Historically, the U.S. team had not been competitive in the IYPT competition. As Dr. B. described, American students “are involved in a wide range of other activities, including all of the tests student have to take, college applications that are so stressful and sports that no one wants to give up. In Georgia students have less to do and can focus on the tournaments.” Cultural and societal distinctions between the U.S. and Georgia may also account for the differences. “When I was the Georgian coach, my boss was the Deputy Minister of Education,” explained Bibilashvili. The Deputy Minister of Education would ensure that the students were awarded spots in universities of their choice. This freed up the students to “forget about school and work with me for several months. And obviously they performed well.” Bibilashvili said the government provided these advantages because “it was a point of pride in countries from the eastern block, communist countries, to perform well in the tournament to prove that socialist and communist countries are better than others [… and] here [in the U.S.] we are not interested in doing that.”

Even without these advantages, Bibilashvili and his colleague Bruce Oldacker turned the American team around. In less than four years, the US team reached the finals of the IYPT. With success came a huge commitment. Bibilashvili and Oldacker came to realize that no one else would invest as much time into the program as they did and the team would scale back after they stopped coaching. This led to their decision to establish the USAYPT. Together with Greg Jacobs they formulated the rules and the motto of USA version of the tournament: Better teaching and learning by doing research.

Bibilashvili (left) with the captain of the 2004 US IYPT team Nick Simmons (right)

The structure of the USAYPT is similar to its International counterpart, except it is designed to reasonably fit into the busy lives of American high school students. As with the IYPT, teams still debate each other over a set of pre-determined problems. However, instead of the IYPT’s 17 problems, the USAYPT has four. The two tournaments differ in the problem selection process as well. Bibilashvili explained, “We want each problem to have enough for both theory and experiment. The International [tournament] has some theoretical problems” which are impossible to test experimentally. Bibilashvili expressed that another key difference is “instead of having competitions for countries, we made it competitions for schools.”

The tournament is broken down into the preliminary rounds, which take the first day and a half, and playoffs, which occur during the afternoon of the second day. Six teams make it to the playoffs this year and the others participate in a poster competition. “The goal of the poster competition is to keep the teams interacting with the judges and other students,” said Bibilashvili. Many of the teams traveled far to participate in the tournament so the poster competition was added to keep every team engaged throughout the event.

As the USAYPT Tournament Director, Dr. B. is responsible for all logistics related to the coordination and interaction of teams. He prepares the tournament schedule, assigns judges and rooms, and other educational aspects of the tournament logistics. Additionally, he now is in charge of deciding the number of teams that receive the ‘Bibilashvili Award for Excellence in Physics.’ Established in 2017, this award recognizes teams that performed exceptionally well during the tournament giving them “something to bring back to their schools to help secure financial support for the following years,” explained Bibilashvili. Rather than have a set number of teams earn the award each year, the USAYPT set it up to be flexible and dependent on team performance. Each year, Bibilashvili is in charge of determining the number of teams that earn the award. This year, seven top teams received the medal.

Bibilashvili (far right) and the 2017 USAYPT's second place team

Over the years, the tournament, which originally was designed for just American teams, has grown to include international participants. Teams have travelled from countries such as Australia, Slovakia, China, Singapore and even Tunisia. Dr. B. thinks the diversity makes the tournament even more valuable to the participants. “It is great to see students meet and interact with people from other cultures,” he explained. “The interaction between the students is amazing.”

Bibilashvili would not be at CCS if he had not gotten involved with USAYPT. He was recruited to CCS by one of his students. Dr. B recounted, “When I came to the U.S., I first started working at private schools and was a professor at some colleges.” One of his students at Wildwood School (Los Angeles), Daniel Kerr, became a CCS physics student. Since he was very closely connected to his students, he met with Kerr every semester when he was back home. “He would tell me about how amazing CCS is and when my position was advertised I had to apply,” Bibilashvili said. “This competition brought me here.”

Now that he is here, Bibilashvili would like to see UCSB host the tournament. “Various universities and high schools host USAYPT each year, said Bibilashvili. “I wish that one day UCSB would be able to host this competition because it matches our Creative Studies ideology and vision. Since this competition appeals to students who love doing research it might attract really good students to CCS and UCSB.”

The Bibilashvili Medal
 
To learn more about the USAYPT, please visit USAYPT.org.
 
Contact the author:
Will Proctor
(805) 893-2035