Teenage Scientists Decipher Cosmic Rays with UW QuarkNet
Hunched over heavy coils of wire, eyes trained on a rapidly blinking cosmic ray detector, the students puzzled out the properties of muons—the electron’s heavy cousins and a potential clue to understanding the Big Bang’s primordial forces. This was real research. This was QuarkNet.
But to really understand the significance of four local high schools sending their best and brightest to the Physics/Astronomy Building in the middle of summer break, we have to back up—to the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. Beneath its soil, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) accelerates particles until they smash together in miniature Big Bangs, splintering protons into a spray of microscopic components. (For more information on the LHC, scroll to the video below.) Four detectors—ATLAS, CMS, ALICE and LHCb—record the collisions and scientists across the world analyze their data to unravel the mysteries of the universe’s fundamental building blocks and their interactions.QuarkNet is a nationally-funded initiative to bring cutting-edge particle physics to high schools across America. The program pairs physicists from national laboratories and universities with science teachers and students in order to promote the study of modern physics in high school classrooms. The workshops teach participants to build cosmic ray detectors, conduct relevant scientific investigations and submit their findings to national databases.
The UW’s QuarkNet Center has actively embraced that mission, offering both single and multi-day workshops annually. August’s Cosmic Ray/LHC workshop, organized by Professor Shih-Chieh Hsu and staff teacher Kris Whelan, lasted five days and involved four area high schools—Liberty, Skyline, Forest Ridge and Meadowdale. The first three days were dedicated to building new muon detectors under the tutelage of Bob Peterson from Fermilab (the largest particle physics lab in America) and the rest to analyzing real data from the LHC with QuarkNet’s Kenneth Cecire.Helping the whole process along were UW’s own graduate and undergraduate students, selected for their knowledge and enthusiasm by Professor Hsu. Max Golub, a pre-engineering junior, was one of those assistants and eagerly shared his QuarkNet experience:
“I became involved in the workshop through my research for Professor Hsu. Our focus is on the Large Hadron Collider’s ATLAS detector. Essentially our group is helping with a two year-long upgrade to the detector, which began in 2013, by developing and commissioning the pixel data acquisition system.
I assisted Bob Peterson and Kenneth Cecire for two days of the QuarkNet workshop. The first thing you notice about the students and teachers participating is how focused and interested they are. Their level of interest in particle physics is unmatched by most high schools students. Everyone in the room was well prepared and knew exactly what tasks they had to do. They would craft hypotheses and test them at their own pace, without any supervision – just like university research.Within minutes of my first shift, a student had already asked about the research UW is doing for the ATLAS detector. Later that day, this student even sat in on a research meeting with our colleagues at CERN and abroad. He continues to attend the weekly meetings when he can, and will join our team when he starts at the University.
To me this is really what QuarkNet is about, connecting junior and senior level high school students with college level research opportunities. One of the reasons why QuarkNet fits so well with UW is that we have so much undergraduate research available.
Overall, working with the group of students at this year’s QuarkNet was really an excellent experience.”
To learn more about QuarkNet’s opportunities, please visit: http://quarknet.fnal.gov/.