Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 23  |  Friday, July 21, 2000  |  Number 13
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Weaving the QuarkNet

by Kurt Riesselmann

24 high school teachers from around the country are the latest additions to QuarkNet At first nobody noticed it. It slowly grew, ensnaring physicists at a few U.S. universities. Then, it began to spread beyond the university world. Soon, it may capture teenagers in a high school near you.

QuarkNet is a network of dedicated particle physicists and high school teachers, providing high school students with first-hand experience in science, involving them in aspects of R&D and providing opportunities to interact with real-life scientists. QuarkNet aims at teaching junior and senior high school students introductory physics concepts and experimental methods by doing "the real thing."

To start this network, Keith Baker of Hampton University, Marge Bardeen of Fermilab, Michael Barnett of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Randy Ruchti of University of Notre Dame recruited particle physicists from around the country to serve as coaches and mentors for local high school teachers. By 1999, they had established the basis for twelve QuarkNet centers. They hired four educators to coordinate the activities, to monitor and nurture the QuarkNet program, and to visit the QuarkNet teachers at their high schools, even sitting in on classroom sessions.

Back to class

Before reaching out to students, high school teachers must learn "the real thing" themselves. In the summer of 1999, the first 24 teachers from across the U.S., two linked to each new QuarkNet center, received their initial training. They spent one week at Fermilab, learning about particle physics, getting tied into the QuarkNet. Next, they participated in seven weeks of research with their local QuarkNet physicists and mentors, building and testing detector components or developing software modules. They received financial support from QuarkNet funding provided by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and participating universities and physics laboratories.

"QuarkNet is a very challenging physics program," said Texas teacher Darren Carollo, comparing it to other educational training programs. Carollo works with inner city minority students in Dallas and had just completed a week at Fermilab. "The math is the easy part for me. But the concepts and working with objects that I cannot touch, such as particles, are difficult for me. The talks by Fermilab's theorists have helped a lot in creating a visual picture."

Carollo has experience in software programming and Internet applications. For QuarkNet he will develop software to display data of particle collisions on computer monitors. As they learn new skills, Carollo and his colleagues bring their knowledge to the general physics courses they teach. Each teacher's research project is the stepping stone to provide selected students the pathway to real-life research experience.

Physics Ponzi scheme

2000 is the year when QuarkNet is set to snowball:

  • Fourteen new universities, all with research groups in hadron collider physics, joined up as sites of future QuarkNet centers.

  • The 1999 crop of teachers and scientists have selected associate teachers who are being trained.

  • The 1990 round of teachers started working with their first QuarkNet students, as well as teaching regular high school physics classes, explaining introductory physics concepts using examples from cutting-edge physics research.

    Shannon Thorne-Brackett Vergara from Virginia joined QuarkNet this year. When complete, a QuarkNet center consists of two lead teachers, 10 associate teachers and at least two particle physicists, who act as mentors and provide access to research projects. The first two QuarkNet teachers of each center, after finishing their eight-week research assignment, recruit associate teachers, who receive a three-week training session the following summer at the local university. By 2005, this physics education "pyramid scheme" will result in 60 QuarkNet centers with a total of 720 teachers, reaching out to 100,000 students annually. Each year, about 5000 students will have the opportunity to be involved in a particle physics research project.

    First Prize: One week at Fermilab

    The two lead teachers of each new QuarkNet center receive their first week of training at Fermilab. This year's group of new lead teachers attended sessions from June 25 to July 1.

    "Participating in the QuarkNet training session here at Fermilab, I feel like a kid in a toy shop," remarked Ken Taylor from Lake Collins High school in Dallas. Taylor has a Ph.D. in physics, not a pre-requisite for the program. He worked on federal research programs before he decided to become a high school teacher.

    "They really get us excited about particle physics," commented Shannon Thorne-Brackett Vergara, who learned about QuarkNet from Ken Cecire of Hampton University. She had her first particle physics contacts through the RECET program at the University of Virginia, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. But she found it was difficult to convert research experience to classroom teaching.

    "With the QuarkNet program they allow us to gain basic knowledge about particle physics, provide research experience. Then we are working with the mentors at our local QuarkNet university to actually transfer the information from research projects into the classroom," explains Vergara. "The QuarkNet program has helped me to see my part in the whole research program, and it provides continuous support."

    QuarkNet staff members Ken Cecire of Hampton University, Andria Erzberger of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Tom Jordan of Fermilab and Pat Mooney of Notre Dame organized the weeklong training session. In addition to intensive lessons, which included in-class data-reduction sessions, the teachers visited the detector and accelerator facilities. Lectures by well-known research physicists completed the program.

    "The second day of training, I saw the teachers change from teachers to apprentice scientists. The transformation was amazing," Jordan said. "We gave them these data, and they had these meetings to discuss what they had to do with the data. They were arguing with each other, challenging each other andˇthinking together."

    Data from particle detectors

    Data used by QuarkNet teachers is based on real physics events recorded by the CDF and DZero detectors at Fermilab. Beginning in 2005, data from the ATLAS and CMS detectors at the Large Hadron Collider, now under construction at CERN, Switzerland, will also be available for classroom work. Students will be able to work along side scientists on the verge of discovering new particles and interactions.

    "When students need to do a physics problem, they want to relate it to the real world," said Taylor, who is optimistic that he can use his QuarkNet experience in the classroom. "For example, when the curriculum requires the students to calculate a magnetic field, I can now relate this problem to the magnets of the Tevatron accelerator. QuarkNet also gives me useful examples for my computer lab classes."

    Concepts like conservation of momentum and energy are an essential part of physics education. QuarkNet gives students the opportunity to learn these concepts while analyzing data taken by physics experiments at the frontier of scienceˇexperiments that teachers helped build.

    The QuarkNet program can also help schools in the perennial search for more funding. Taylor's school district, impressed by the QuarkNet program, has already committed several thousand dollars to buying new physics equipment.

    Student involvement at its best

    Joe Martin and Amy DeCelles are QuarkNet students of Patrick Mooney at Trinity High School in South Bend, Indiana. His group of students, most of them seniors at various high schools in and around South Bend, recently visited Fermilab to learn more about the laboratory and to see the 40-foot-high DZero detector.

    QuarkNet Staff member Patrick Mooney tells his QuarkNet students about Fermilab's mission. "This summer, every morning at 7:30 a.m., five days a week, students of our QuarkNet group are on shift at a science lab near Notre Dame to prepare optical fibers for use in waveguides as part of Fermilab's DZero detector," Martin said. "In the afternoon we have lectures on related physics aspects and how DZero will use the fibers we assembled. In addition to earning some money, we learn a lot."

    "We get spools with 2,500 meters of fibers, and we check, bundle and shield them. Then we send the fibers to Fermilab, where they put connectors on the endings and install the fibers in the detector," DeCelles said. "It is our responsibility to identify fibers that do not work and replace them."

    The QuarkNet program seems to be well on its way to achieving its goals, stimulating interest in science among high school students. Will they consider studying physics when they start college next year? DeCelles and her peer students didn't hesitate.

    "Absolutely!" they said. They'd been caught in the QuarkNet.

  • last modified 7/21/2000   email Fermilab