Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 25  |  Friday, October 18, 2002  |  Number 17
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Lab School
Fermilab Visit Offers New View of Science for Alabama High School

by Mike Perricone

Their whirlwind tour took in Fermilab and Blue Man Group, particle adventures and deep-dish pizza, neutrino experiments and Chicago’s Navy Pier, cosmic rays and a stellar presentation of “Leon Lederman Explains It All.”

Leon Lederman signed copies of his book,The God Particle, for students from Altamont School during their visit to Fermilab.

Then it was back to Altamont School in Birmingham, Alabama, for 10 high-schoolers and two teachers who had the run of the laboratory — or at least, were running all around the laboratory — from Monday to Wednesday, September 30 to October 2 with representatives of Fermilab’s Education Office as their tour guides.

It was the second Fermilab visit for students from the private school with an enrollment of about 400. The first, a year ago at around the same time, came about by way of the Web. Each department of the school has a week-long trip in the autumn for a direct look at a relevant area of study (the French Department,for example,goes to France), with the students paying their own way.

Chemistry teacher Donna Kentros was browsing the Web, looking for a destination for a science trip last year, when her interest was piqued by the Fermilab home page. Kentros contacted Fermilab education director Marge Bardeen, who put her in touch with education specialist Tom Jordan, who began working on the logistics.

“We corresponded by email to plan the trip,” Kentros said.“Email is a wonderful thing.”

This year’s trip had an extra-added attraction: spending Wednesday morning in a chat with Lederman, Fermilab director emeritus and 1988 Nobel Prize winner. Kentros took the suggestion of educational consultant Alan November,of Wilmette, Ill., who offered a workshop presentation at Altamont on using computer technology in the classroom. November suggested linking up with Lederman for a visit at Fermilab, and Kentros again made the connection by email.

Lederman took the students on a grand tour of the growth of scientific thought, culminating in the “shower curtain” model of the Higgs field. The Greek philosophers, he said, always wanted to know: Where is the simplicity?

Students from the Birmingham, Alabama school began their tour with the site model on the 15th Floor of Wilson Hall.

“A theory is only good if it fits on a T-shirt,” Lederman said. “The Greeks thought that when we find what we’re ultimately looking for, we’d be rolling on the floor with laughter because it would be so simple, we’d wonder why it took us so long to find out.”

Case in point: viewing the Higgs, postulated as the source of mass for the other elementary particles, as a rippled shower curtain. Our world looks complicated, Lederman proposed, because we see it through the Higgs field and its ripple effect.

“It’s like looking through a lucite shower curtain,” he said.“If you turn on the bathroom light and look through the shower curtain, you might see three different points of light. Look through 10 shower curtains and turn on the light,and you might see a thousand points of light.”

Illustrating a point, Lederman drew a chart of the Standard Model, circling the bottom quark and muon neutrino,commenting: “By the way, I discovered those two particles …”

“Dr.Lederman was definitely the highlight of the trip,” said student Evan Calker.“He explains physics in way that’s simple and fun. And when we were eating lunch in the cafeteria, I looked around and thought,‘This is, like, the top five percent of intelligence in country.’”

Visiting the Linac gallery, students found it hard to keep their eyes off the Cockcroft-Walton preaccelerator.

Lederman took the opportunity to present one of his favorite themes, restructuring the high school science sequence to offer conceptual physics first, as a foundation for chemistry and then biology, which he termed the most complicated of the three areas. A more advanced physics course could then follow as an elective. He’s adamant about trying to change the current sequence of biology, chemistry and physics.

“It’s alphabetically correct,” Lederman said,“but that sequence was designed in 1893, long before what we know now of all those disciplines. We recently had a time traveler from 1893 visit the lab, and he was overwhelmed by the science and technology, the cars, the cell phones, the computers. He was in shock. So we took him to a local high school, and when he saw the science sequence, he calmed down and felt like he was back home in 1893.”

Altamont physics teacher Warren Kinney enthusiastically seconded the change in sequence. “As a physics teacher, I want them to take physics as soon as possible,” Kinney said,“so they can make intelligent decisions about advanced topics courses they might want to take. This year three of my seniors are taking calculus-based physics, which is essentially independent study, but I would like them to get conceptual physics in the eighth grade.”

Kinney also identified a key source of inertia. “Some folks feel that because physics is a challenging subject, it hurts the grade point average of some children,” he said.“They ’re concerned about information going out to colleges. So they feel students shouldn’t take physics until their senior year. Also, we have to gear our teaching to the Advanced Placement tests, which are given at that time.”

The Altamont students worked with cosmic ray data.

But for three days in Batavia, the Altamont students had their own “special topics in physics ” mini-course. On Monday the students toured the 15th floor of Wilson Hall with its view of the Tevatron and much of the site. They visited the Linac and Main Control Room, and made measurements with the QuarkNet classroom cosmic ray detector. Later,they visited the MiniBooNE neutrino experiment, hosted by experiment collaborators Jocelyn Monroe of Columbia University and Jennifer Rath of the University of Cincinnati.

On Tuesday, they visited the Central Helium Liquefier, guided by Jerry Makara.(“The group showed a great interest in our large helium and nitrogen liquefier plants, with very good questions,” said Makara.“They’ll have a good future with their inquisitive minds.”) Then they spent time analyzing data from the cosmic ray detectors and from accumulated data at the QuarkNet Online Cosmic Ray Detector. They spent the afternoon viewing NuMI detectors being assembled at the New Muon Lab, with Cat James.(“This was a bright bunch of kids.[They were] a lot of fun for me,” James said, “because of their interest and the really good questions they asked. Heck, I didn’t know this stuff when I was in high school.”) They toured the Feynman Computing Center with Lisa Giacchetti. (“They were knowledgeable about computer issues,” Giacchetti said.“When I said the PCs ran Linux, they asked if it was RedHat.”)They finished their Fermilab stay by spending the morning with Lederman. Thursday was a Chicago day to enjoy sights, sounds and tastes before flying back early Friday morning.

The Altamont students wound up their visit with a special presentation from Leon Lederman.

“I think it ’s like going to a foreign country,” Kentros said of the experience.“The trip takes some of the romance out of it in a way. They think a foreign country is going to be a certain way in your mind, where everything is different. But when you get there, you find out that it’s really just a lot of normal people doing normal things.When they see the way real science is done, perhaps they’ll think, ‘Hey,I could do this.’ In way, it does get them to realize that science is something they can do, something they can accomplish.”

And it sounded as if the message did hit home, with a twist.

“This is where the stuff you learn in school really happens,” said student Nirmal Choradia. “So instead of learning in school, you can come here and learn.”

Altamont School www.altamontschool.org
Fermilab Education Office http://www-ed.fnal.gov/ed_home.html

last modified 10/18/2002   email Fermilab