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Joey Takach posing with a smile in front of leafy green bushes.

Edtech-inspired physics and mathematics senior lands a spot at top-tier university

By Kaitlyn Hornbuckle

A long time ago in a galaxy not so far away — in Lake Oswego, Oregon — Joey Takach ordered a bunch of soundboards, accelerometers and other metal parts online. This aspiring Jedi was determined to build his own model lightsabers that hummed and glowed just like the Star Wars movies.

"When I was really young, I wanted to be an astrophysicist, but I didn't really know what that meant. I’ve always been a huge Star Wars fan, so fantasizing about creating technology that might resemble something from that played a significant role in what I chose to study,” he said.

Building lightsabers while in high school wasn’t out of the ordinary for Takach. He loved putting together different types of gadgets for fun, and drew inspiration from the type of work his mother did in the engineering field.

When it was time to decide his next steps in his academic career, he applied to Oregon State University to study electrical engineering. The presidential scholarship helped him avoid student debt and made studying at Oregon State especially appealing.

But then his trajectory changed entirely. Instead of focusing on the mechanics of building lightsabers, he became fascinated by something bigger: getting closer to objective reality itself. And being able to model what happens in real life using mathematical equations to make sense of everyday experiences was just as captivating.

Joey Takach grinning while writing equations on a chalkboard.

Takach plays with some of his favorite equations.

"When I started to take more physics classes, I thought, 'Wow, this physics stuff is really cool,' and it just clicked,” Takach said. One thing led to another, his passion grew and he pivoted entirely.

"Not to say that math isn’t beautiful, but I think that applying math to something real is what is most important."

Takach is graduating this summer with a double major in physics and mathematics. "The coolest thing about the math department is how flexible it is. And in the physics department, everyone's really friendly and there's lots of interaction between students," he said.

In the fall, Takach is moving forward with a Ph.D. program at University of California, Berkeley, focusing on particle physics and phenomenology. This involves looking for things that can be observed and may not be obvious experimentally. Instead of testing a hypothesis, phenomenologists choose a mathematical theory and try to “tease out” observations. After they decide what the observable effects are, they tell experimentalists to go looking for them in real life applications.

By chance, physics meets education technology

Takach found a lot of faculty support that allowed him to make an impact early on in his academic career. In his first year, one of his main advisors, Associate Department Head David Craig became his go-to resource for knowledge.

“I did the naive freshman thing and went to Craig because he was one of the resident theoretical physicists here. He directed me to a bunch of stuff to study in my free time and what books to read. He also motivated me to start learning on my own, and helped me learn how to attack those high-level concepts early without waiting to be in a class.”

Takach’s journey didn’t stop there. Last summer, he landed an internship at University of California, Davis, where he gained experience working with computational physics and quantum field theories in the realm of particle physics.

At Oregon State, he worked on campus as a peer advisor for the Science Success Center and as a learning assistant for the Techniques of Theoretical Mechanics course in the physics department.

His passion blossomed when he learned how to utilize the power of Python, a computer programming language, to create educational videos about high-level physics concepts and make the content more accessible to students who haven’t learned it.

Takach is busy typing behind his laptop. A chalkboard full of mathematical equations stands behind him.
Takach steps through a Python program that runs a video simulation. A blue sphere with arrows pointing out of it is displayed on the computer screen.

Takach presents a vector video simulation using the Python programming language.

“Getting an early start and giving kids the opportunities to learn more as early as they can is so important. It becomes second-nature if they start early enough,” he said.

Inspired by YouTuber 3Blue1Brown, who made animated mathematics content, Takach created his own video to help more students have access to an engaging, easier-to-grasp learning experience. His goal was to teach about an advanced mathematics topic: curl.

In vector mathematics, curl is a concept that involves measuring the rotational or swirling behavior of a vector field. A vector is a direction with a specified measurement, such as how fast a golf ball moves forward when hit with a golf club. Imagine a bunch of arrows pointing in the direction that the ball is moving – the longer the arrows, the stronger the force in that direction.

“There are tons of people online that make these kinds of videos. Making this content accessible to younger people is essential because the amount of science you need to know in order to advance in a field is very daunting,” Takach said.

He sent his video to Physics Professor Emeritus Corinne Manogue, the leader behind the Paradigms in Physics project funded by the National Science Foundation. This physics education project led to the creation of 19 new physics courses and focused on shifting the curricula from traditional lectures to active engagement for students at Oregon State.

She hired Takach to make more educational videos that were aligned with the physics curriculum, including quantum mechanics. The videos were intended to improve the learning experience for future physics students.

“The most concrete thing that I want to have an impact on is teaching. I love sharing the experience of learning something for the first time. It happens so frequently – it's the weirdest experience and when you share that with someone, It’s motivating, fulfilling and fun,” he said.

Physics Associate Professor Elizabeth Gire also had a positive influence on his academic career. After she taught one of his first upper-division physics courses, he left feeling inspired. "She really, really cares about the students and how much everyone's learning. I think that rubbed off on me. The way she goes about teaching and encouraging people to work together is definitely something to look up to and had a big impression on me.”

Looking back, one of Takach’s favorite memories at Oregon State is living with his friends for three years. "Two of my best friends from high school are still my roommates now. They’ve been a great support system.”

During his free time, Joey loves to dive into music and plays several instruments, including guitar, bass, viola and violin. When the sun comes out, he enjoys hiking, backpacking and traveling.

After completing his Ph.D. in California, Takach dreams of becoming a physics professor. “Learning and teaching for as long as possible is the most ideal for me. I need the connection to what is actually real. Not to say that math isn’t beautiful, but I think that applying math to something real is what is most important.”

Takach fills a chalkboard with mathematical equations, with his back faced to the camera.

Takach contributes to the beauty of mathematics and reality of physics on a chalkboard.