Ohio high school senior Ryan Chester became the inaugural winner of a new college scholarship on Sunday night, winning $250,000 for his 7-minute 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 $100,000 for a new science lab at his school in the Cleveland suburbs, North Royalton High, and $50,000 for his physics teacher, Richard Nestoff.
“This is awesome,” Chester, 18, said in an interview Monday, the day after he accepted the award.
The scholarship means he can apply to a bunch of colleges he hadn’t considered before because of their cost, he said: “A ton of possibilities are open. Before, I was worried about graduating with debt, and I don’t have to worry about that now,” he said.
The scholarship is the newest award in the family of Breakthrough Prizes, which are meant to celebrate the importance of science and recognize 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 $100,000 for promising early-career achievements to $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 partner in education philanthropy, Priscilla Chan, presented the award to Chester in an Oscar-style presentation that was broadcast live Sunday night on the National Geographic Channel.
“With the Breakthrough Prize and Junior Challenge, we want to inspire more young people to study science and math, 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 cartoonish 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 traveling 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 and 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.
In an interview with The Washington Post on Monday, Chester said the challenge was a chance for him to marry science and film-making, two of his passions. He plans to major in film in college, and perhaps minor in engineering.
“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 A.P. 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 ACT scores, 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 in an interview. “He’s such a well-rounded kid. He’s so pleasant.”
Nestoff said Monday morning that he was “still on cloud nine” after the awards ceremony, made surreal by the number of Silicon Valley celebrities and great scientific minds in attendance. He said he isn’t sure what he’ll do with the $50,000 prize. He doesn’t want to just throw it into his retirement fund or buy a car, he said. He wants to do something special — maybe start taking some interesting vacations after spending many summers teaching at various camps.
But while the money turns heads, he said, what means more to him is the fact that his student appreciates him. “The fact that he thinks a lot of me, that’s the part that’s very gratifying,” Nestoff said.
“Do I deserve it? “I don’t think so. But I’m glad he thinks so.”