Balakrishna’s love for Physics pays off
[Malaysian homeschooler Balakrishna M. Pillai is 14-years old. But as he is apt to say, "Don't hold my age against me; judge me by my knowledge and skill." Indeed. This young man and a team of students he led was awarded first place in the international Global Challenge 2009 competition for students in the Best Global Business Plan Category (see previous post). We're thrilled and pleased for Balakrishna and his parents! Recently HOMEFRONTIER caught up with this homeschooler-in-a-hurry and interviewed him via email]
1. Tell us, who is Balakrishna M. Pillai?
Homeschooled. Secured the New Zealand Certificate of Educational Achievement Levels 1 and 2, about 2 years ago. I am 40 credits away from getting Level 3. Put off completing NCEA as I want to pursue an education in USA. Completed the SAT last year, my first public examination. I got full marks in SAT II Math and scored 30 marks shy of a full score in SAT II Physics.
I am by nature a very curious individual. I like to fiddle and take things apart and very often do not succeed in putting them back. Every button I see needs to be pushed and every switch flicked. It is no wonder my parents figured I would not survive school. I think perhaps they were more concerned for the teachers. Being homeschooled allows me to study areas which fascinate me. I am fascinated with Physics, more specifically theoretical Physics. Hopefully I will get an opportunity to attend a university. Unfortunately I am 14 years old and have got a fair bit of waiting to do. That is the most excruciating part.
2. Your parents Murali and Juliana Pillai have done a great job educating you at home. What’s it like to be an only child and a homeschooler?
I must say I have had a wonderful education. I choose what I want to learn and I never had to worry about exams until late last year. So I pretty much enjoyed the process of learning at my own pace. I much prefer this to going to school. The system would have sent me to the Tanjung Rambutan Institute for the Study of Mental Illnesses. I enjoy being an only child and I don’t think I am none the worse for wear for being an only child.
3. Could you tell us how you developed your passion for Physics?
When I see a mountain I admire its beauty. And then I stop and ask, “How do the sub-atomic particles that make up the atoms that make up the molecules that make up the rocks, snow, and ice that make up the mountain interact to make up the mountain?” I have, and have always had since I was a child, dozens of questions about the inner workings of the universe swimming around in my head. Studying Physics may bring me closer to answering these questions and satisfying my passion to find out how the universe works.
4. With all these questions swimming around in your head, do you have time for anything else besides Physics?
I am constantly working on physics problems, so there is no moment when I am not busy with physics. I like photography, painting, scuba diving, and going on nature walks and when I do these activities I am thinking about physics. I did too drag my parents up a mountain in New Zealand! I also occasionally walk through glass doors, usually resulting in a visit to the hospital.
5. Well, your passion for Physics paid off. You got more than just a crack at an international competition for students, the Global Challenge. How did that happen?
I was invited by a Malaysian student to participate in the competition. The competition is a science, technology, engineering and mathematics intensive program. It is open to high school students so generally students who are 15-19 years participate, but as you can see it is not a hard and fast rule.
The Global Challenge requires students to work in teams of 4 and invent a device that can reduce the effects of climate change. The team is then required to prepare a global business plan for that device. By so doing the participants are exposed to real life considerations like manufacturing, marketability and profitability of the product. The Business Plan has to prove that the device works, and that it is marketable, and can generate a profit.
6. Tell us about your submission. You must have put in a lot of work; what did you actually have to do?
There is a lot of reading and you must have a wide breadth of knowledge. Packaging the whole idea is also very challenging. I made my presentation differently and kept the reader pretty much in view. A lot of effort went into it and although I had a team I did everything from the conception of idea to writing the whole business plan. That was primarily because I had the luxury of time on my hands while the others were really hard pressed for time given their hectic schedules. So my first draft was pretty much the final work.
When Yu Yu, a returning participant in the Global Challenge invited me to participate in this challenge I was skeptical if I would enjoy it. I must confess while I am aware of the problem of global warming and climate change, like millions out there I cannot see myself doing anything which could solve the problem. In short, it is not top of my list of priorities. My passion is Physics and I could not see very much Physics in this competition.
7. You were ‘skeptical’ but you went on ahead anyway. And you picked up new experiences, learned new things, made new friends. How do you feel about that?
I said yes since I had nothing better to do anyway and now I am glad I did say yes. To say I learned new things would be an understatement. I am sure an expert reviewing the work done for the Global Challenge will find more holes in it than you would find in a piece of cheese but I sincerely feel it is a good start. For the first time I see the relevance in things like industrial analysis, market analysis, political and financial feasibility. I would not have given these areas any notice at all previously, so all said and done, it was and continues to be an enlightening experience. It was good teaming up with young people from America.
I learned they are under as much pressure as youths who go to school in Malaysia. I enjoy talking with Ivan (my team mate). He is constantly advising me about college in USA and that is nice. I appreciate that and will always remember that. I enjoyed working with Yu Yu too and we had some fruitful face-to-face meetings in the early stages. While Ivan is chattier, I found Yu Yu more laconic and I still have difficulty understanding what she says. In the later stages there were some tense moments and differences of opinion between us and I dealt with them as best as I could.
8. Were your parents involved in any way?
I would like to thank my mother, who has sprouted several gray hairs due to this competition, even though she was not directly involved, and my father, who came up with several ideas for this competition (none of which were actually workable). What is important is both my parents are always there to lend support, encourage me and cheer me up when the chips were down.
9. That’s wonderful! Now, could you tell us a little about the idea behind your team project?
About my idea: In an average day, a human expands an enormous amount of energy going about his daily activities. Consider for a moment our daily activities such as walking, sitting, opening and closing doors and the like. Most of the energy expended on these tasks is wasted without us giving a moment‘s thought.
What if we could capture this energy and put it to good use? With this in mind the MEG was conceived. The MEG, an acronym for the Multipurpose Electric Generator is a device in the form of a tile that consists of a flat plastic plate with 5 magnets attached to its underside. A coil of wire is positioned directly under each magnet.
When pressure is exerted on the plate, the magnets are thrust into the coils, creating an electrical current in the coils through electromagnetic induction. This electricity is captured and stored, ready to be used in any application. It cannot be denied that the energy generated by the MEG is small. However, small amounts add up just like tiny drops make a mighty ocean. The versatile MEG can be placed in any location where pressure is frequently applied by humans. It can be placed on floors of homes in areas where there is the greatest activity or frequency of use, for example near toilets and staircases.
10. That won you first place in the business plan category. Congratulations! What was the award you won, and do you have anything to say about it?
It was an all-expense paid trip to Vermont to attend a week long summer program at the Governor’s Institute of Vermont, USA. Winning the competition was no big deal, but it is very nice to get a free trip. However, I did not like the summer program at the University of Vermont. It was more Engineering-based than Physics-based. I preferred my stint at MIT in Massachusetts which was a 6-week physics course on linear algebra and quantum mechanics.
11. Finally, what advice do you have – if any – for homeschoolers who have problems with subjects like science?
You must develop a passion for it and that passion comes from understanding it. I would say just learn and do not obsess with grades and being better than others.
Balakrishna is presently offering his services as Physics tutor to anyone but he much prefers teens. He is also selling away some of his Physics books and you can take a look at his booklist on our NOTICES (September) page. Email Balakrishna personally at balakrishnapillaim(at)gmail.com