American secondary school student Ryan Chester is the first winner of a new university scholarship, claiming a US$250,000 (HK$1.9 million) prize for a seven-minute YouTube film that uses simple props and hand-drawn graphics to explain Einstein’s special theory of relativity.
Besides winning that money for himself, Chester also won US$100,000 for a new science lab at his school in his hometown in the suburbs ofCleveland, in the US, as well US$50,000 for his physics teacher, Richard Nestoff.
The scholarship is the newest award in the family of Breakthrough Prizes, which are meant to celebrate the importance of science and recognise brilliance in the fields of math, biology and physics. Founded three years ago by Silicon Valley giants, including Google’s Sergey Brin and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the Breakthrough Prize offers awards ranging from US$100,000 for promising early-career achievements to US$3 million for scientists who have made fundamental discoveries about the world.
The Breakthrough Junior Challenge asked young people between ages 13 and 18 to create short videos that communicated a big idea in science. More than 2,000 students from dozens of countries applied.
Zuckerberg’s wife and educational charity partner, Priscilla Chan, presented the award to Chester in an Oscar-style presentation that was broadcast live Sunday night on the National Geographic Channel.
“We want the Breakthrough Prize and Junior Challenge to inspire more young people to study science and maths, and pursue careers that change all our lives,” Chan said in a statement.
Chester’s film takes on one of the biggest ideas in science, Einstein’s theory of relativity. With cartoon graphics drawn by hand and props from everyday life, like a bowl of popcorn and a moving minivan, Chester explains what Einstein’s famous theory is all about – and why it means that people travelling close to the speed of light age slowly compared to people on Earth.
“This is the kind of thing that we’re exposed to all the time in pop culture, films and science shows on TV, but in the video I use physical demonstrations that anyone can think through to have it make sense,” Chester said in an interview posted online.
Chester said the challenge was a chance for him to combine science and film-making, two of his passions. He plans to study film at university, and perhaps engineering too.
“I’ve been making movies for over 10 years now. You wouldn’t believe how much film-making equipment I have in my basement,” he said. “You can make movies about anything. It never gets old, you’re always learning something new, you’re always making something unique.”
Chester could have chosen any teacher to benefit from his prize. He chose Nestoff, his physics teacher, because he is inspiring.
“He’s a great teacher. He’s different than any teacher I’ve had. He’s not really afraid to say anything or do anything as long as it makes class more entertaining and helps teach what he’s teaching,” Chester said. “Every day in physics class, you never know what to expect, and that’s an exciting way to learn science.”
Nestoff said Chester is an outstanding student, not just because of his ability to understand complex physics concepts or his impressive exam results, but because of the easy way he gets along with – and often helps – his classmates.
“Ryan is the perfect person to be involved in something like this,” Nestoff said. “He’s such a well-rounded kid. He’s so pleasant.”