Abington faculty coaches young physics superheroes

physics Kagan
Credit: Penn State

They are physics superheroes, solving incredibly complex problems in a single bound. When the U.S team "trains" the brightest young minds in the nation for the International Physics Olympiad, it relies on experts such as Mikhail Kagan, assistant professor of physics at Penn State Abington. This year, the U.S. teens posted their best results in the competition.

Kagan and the other coaches hunkered down with 20 high school students for an intense two-week training camp. Long days of studying, mystery labs and exams bled into late night problem-solving marathons at the University of Maryland.

"We challenge the students," Kagan said. "And that isn't easy because these kids can learn on their own and figure the problems out."

Kagan physics selfie

Paul Stanley, the team's academic director and professor of physics at Beloit College, and Abington's Mikhail Kagan take a selfie break.

Credit: Penn State

Kagan, who participated in the physics and math Olympiads while in high school, described the teens as intense and highly engaged. Homework that might take an average college sophomore a week to complete was finished the same day — even by one student who had just celebrated his 13th birthday.

"They are the smartest students I have ever taught," he said. "They have a really deep understanding of physics."

Ultimately, five teens plus an alternate qualified at the end of camp, representing the United States at the 46th annual Physics Olympiad in India. The U.S. team, sponsored by the American Institute of Physics and the American Association of Physics Teachers, captured the highest silver medal plus four individual golds. 

"The competition is stiff," Kagan said. "Countries like China, Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand train for months in advance and make huge investments."

It's not surprising that Kagan coached at the training camp. He is a recipient of Penn State's prestigious Atherton Award for teaching excellence, and it clearly is his passion and priority.

“My aim as a teacher is to excite my students’ enthusiasm for scientific discovery and to be there for them when they need friendly guidance from someone as curious as they are.” Mikhail Kagan

Kagan, who earned his doctorate from Penn State, found his intellectual home upon arriving at Abington seven years ago.

“I discovered a whole new world of creative people and their activities,” he said. “I meet many Abingtonians from other disciplines and divisions. This certainly makes my academic life much richer.”