Seneca Valley senior working on theoretical physics project |

Seneca Valley senior working on theoretical physics project

Andrew Lingenfelter got an idea at Carnegie Mellon University over the summer while doing a team research project as part of the Pennsylvania Governor's School of Excellence in Sciences.

The Seneca Valley High School senior was interested in whether or not he could create a scientific simulation and that became his graduation project.

In November, Andrew began working to develop the computer simulation that would visualize how a mathematical function — or quantum mechanical wave-function — is used to describe small-scale particles, such as atoms, electrons and protons.

“Basically what it is doing is calculating these wave functions and figuring out what they do in time,” Andrew, 17, of Evans City, explained. “How do these particles move and how do they interact?”

Patti Griest, gifted support teacher, who has worked with Andrew the past four years as his mentor, said this particular STEM project—science, technology, engineering and math— required third-year college calculus in order to do the math behind the equations to create the simulation.

“He blows me away,” Griest said. “Every year, his projects have been intense scientific studies that are of a magnitude unseen by me from any other student I've worked with.”

Andrew said he still has more to do with his project to run the simulation through a computer process, which he said is not fast.

It takes 10 to 12 minutes to get one data point and Andrew needs thousands upon thousands of data points — which sums up to lots of computer time.

To help out, the Seneca Valley IT department set Andrew up with a series of 10 laptop computers, stripping the laptops bare to allow Andrew to upload an operating system program that he wrote onto each one. This allows the simulation to run on several computers at the same time overnight.

“He's actually feeding it into his home server, then collecting the data remotely on his server,” Griest said.

While this will give him a baseline for his data, arrangements have also been made with the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center to use their computers to process and record data in much larger and faster quantities.

“Basically it would be similar to taking results from a real experiment. I'm just simulating the experiment and then collecting data on the computer.”

He said there are certain results that can be expected and he is hoping to obtain that data from the simulation. His goal is to create a teaching tool explaining the ideas, visually in the simulation, without the high-level mathematics required to understand.

“What I've been doing is taking the mathematical function and transforming them so that I can produce a simulation that is visually very, very meaningful.”

His parents, Holly and Thor Lingenfelter, said they are proud of their son.

In May, he'll present his theoretical physics project for graduation. He presented in February at the Seneca Valley STEM Fair and last week, he presented at the Pittsburgh Regional Science and Engineering Fair at Heinz Field. He took home several honors, including the fourth-place category award in physics, a sponsor award from the Pittsburgh Computing Center, and an affiliate award from Mu Theta Alpha, a mathematical honor fraternity.

He was previously part of an engineering team that took first place in a big competition at Carnegie Mellon for a chain-reaction contraption.

Andrew said he has always been interested in STEM fields, particularly physics.

“I've always had an interest in it, and in the last couple of years, I've really grown a lot.”

He has accepted an offer to attend Yale University, where he hopes to double major in physics and either mathematics or computer science.

“He's a self-taught computer scientist,” Griest said. “He knows how to do more with computers than any other student I've worked with, and yet he doesn't see himself as a computer scientist. He sees it as a tool to do his scientific research.”

Andrew has aspirations to publish a scientific paper on his project, possibly a junior journal. When he's not busy with science, he's doing extracurricular activities.

He participates in cross country, track and field, and helped mentor a Cub Scout troop after earning his Eagle Scout badge two years ago. He is also an avid car mechanic working to restore a 1997 Pontiac Firebird.

Griest said she is thrilled for Andrew and his future.

“I know he will do remarkably well,” she said. “He fully challenges himself at all times.”

Larissa Dudkiewicz is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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