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A big bang: NIU exposes high school students to wonders of particle collisions, supercolliders

March 18, 2011
Teacher Elisa Gatz of Sterling High School.

Teacher Elisa Gatz of Sterling High School.

About two dozen high school students from across the region visited Northern Illinois University this week for a history lesson — and we’re talking ancient history, as in the birth of the universe.

The students learned how high powered particle accelerators replicate particle collisions that happened in the micro-moments after the Big Bang.

NIU physicists led a daylong lesson on Wednesday as part of the International Hands-on Particle Physics Masterclasses program.

The students learned about subatomic particles and the products of their collisions in a massive particle accelerator that is 17 miles in circumference. They also reviewed the same data that top scientists study at the CERN research facility near Geneva, Switzerland.

CERN is home to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the most powerful particle accelerator on the planet. The accelerator crashes together protons moving in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light to recreate conditions after the Big Bang.

Justin Larson, a senior at Byron High School, used a chart to identify electrons and muons and then did some detective work, learning how to use subtle clues to tell if these and other particles were produced when the protons collided. “It was cool,” he said.

Students and teachers taking part in the masterclasses at NIU also came from Metea Valley, Neuqua Valley and Sterling high schools.

Dhiman Chakraborty

Dhiman Chakraborty

NIU physics professor Dhiman Chakraborty, who serves as mentor for the students and their teachers, said the program is designed to show a dimension of science not seen in high school textbooks or classrooms.

“By inviting them to campus, our goal was not to turn the students into scientific experts,” Chakraborty said. “We want them to be interested in science and have an awareness and understanding of what scientists do.”

Via videoconference, the students also were able to interact with and compare findings with other students and teachers involved in QuarkNet, a professional teacher development program funded by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy.

QuarkNet aims to involve high-school teachers and their students in state-of-the-art research that seeks to resolve some of the mysteries about the structure of matter and the fundamental forces of nature.

NIU is one of about 60 official QuarkNet centers at universities and national laboratories across the United States.

“This is information I could never teach in a science class,” said Mike McHale, a math and science teacher at Byron High School who attended the program. “We’ve talked about supercolliders in class. This information shows exactly what they do to particles.”

Scientists at 100 universities and laboratories in 23 countries participated in the International Hands on Particle Physics Masterclasses program.


NIU involving high school teachers in cutting-edge physics research
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