ALAMO HEIGHTS — While many teens set lofty goals, understanding the cosmos is what drives Hagan Hensley, the highest-ranked American in a recent international astronomy competition.
Hensley, a 16-year-old former Keystone School student, received a gold medal in November at the International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics in Phuket, Thailand. He placed fourth overall out of 210 competitors from 44 countries; only 10 gold medals were awarded.
“I definitely did not expect to place fourth (out of all competitors),” said Hensley, a long-time Alamo Heights resident.
He’s not stopping there, with a paper set for publication in a respected scientific journal.
At IOAA, Hensley was the highest-ranking member of Team USA. His group placed second overall in the IOAA competition, with two golds and three honorable mentions in the individual competitions.
The IOAA is one of the International Science Olympiads, in addition to biology, chemistry, math and others.
Hensley, a senior at Stanford Online High School, also takes part in the USA Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad. For the second year in a row, he placed first nationwide in the USAAAO.
In 2016, the teen traveled as part of the American group to the IOAA in Bhubaneswar, India, and took 15th, earning a silver medal.
Ever since he was young, Hensley said, he was always fascinated by astronomy.
“I got my first telescope back when I was10 years old,” the young scientist said. “At that point I was hooked. I would go outside and participate in star parties quite often.”
Hensley would get away from the glare of the city’s lights to view the unobscured night sky. One evening during a star party hosted by the San Antonio League of Sidewalk Astronomers, he received recommendations on the best telescopes.
After he started taking physics classics with Stanford University’s independent online high school, the astrophysics applications of astronomy began to attract his interest.
Astrophysics goes beyond just “looking at the stars” and led to his interest in the IOAA.
Hensley’s parents are Shelly and Rick Hensley.
Shelly Hensley said her son loves to share his “curiosity and the wonders of the world.”
“We try to keep up with him,” Hensley said. “We make sure that he has opportunities to pursue the things that he loves, specifically astronomy and astrophysics.”
Hensley said teachers at Keystone School helped “nurture, support and challenge” her offspring. Educators at the school were very supportive when her son moved on to Stanford Online High School.
Kalee Tock, a Stanford science instructor, had high praise for Hagan Hensley, who started an astronomy club at the virtual campus in 2015. Tock is the sponsor.
“He brought to the astronomy club many activities and ideas,” Tock said. “He would bring presentations. He encouraged us to participate in citizen-science efforts.”
Tock also said that Hensley has a big influence on her students, and he has encouraged other Stanford pupils to join the IOAA.
The school’s enrollees learn in real-time online seminars; they hail from 46 states and 32 countries, interacting through seminar-style discussion classes.
His talents are not bound just to science competitions, Tock added. Hensley worked on a project called “Solving an Orbit,” presented at the American Association of Physics Teachers in San Diego, California, in January.
The paper, which Hensley wrote last summer, was accepted by the Journal of Double Star Observations, Tock said.
Hensley also qualified for the U.S. team head to the International Physics Olympiad, and will journey to Baltimore this summer for training.
Hensley, who graduates at the end of the academic year, plans to attend the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.
After school, Hensley wants to be either a researcher or teach astrophysics at the university level.