Secondary school teachers, meet particle physics
Imagine this: a stationary object such as a vase suddenly explodes, sending fragments flying. Given the final energies and momentum of the fragments, can you determine the mass of the object before it shattered?
Dave Fish introduces his students to this common momentum conservation problem, with a twist. Instead of describing the explosion of a macroscopic object like a vase, it describes the transformation of a top quark and a top antiquark into other fundamental particles.
Fish teaches high school physics and is a professor in residence at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario. In Canada, particle physics is “one of those things that teachers tend to leave until the end of class and then they run out of time,” says Fish. “Most of us as secondary school teachers feel overwhelmed by the content.”
Particle physics makes its appearance in the curriculum of the International Baccalaureate, a program recognized as an entrance qualification to higher education by many universities around the world. The subject also appears in some state curricula, such as that of North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. But in general, “there aren’t many programs that deal explicitly with particle physics,” says Jeff Wiener, head of teacher programs at CERN. “Those who do usually focus on rather boring stuff like, ‘Name two leptons.'”
Put particles in the program
Many high school science teachers who would like to teach particle physics say they feel insufficiently informed about the subject or don’t know how to include it without sacrificing required curriculum topics.
Fish and Wiener are two of many people hoping to change that. They see many opportunities to incorporate particle physics into standard curricula focused on general physics concepts. To teach conservation of momentum, try using real data from the discovery of the top quark (an activity developed by educators at the US Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory). To demonstrate the movement of charged particles in magnetic fields, show photographs of particle detectors called bubble chambers. To give an example of circular motion, discuss the mystery of dark matter.
One of Fish’s former students, Nikolina Ilic, considers a dark matter project she undertook in her class a turning point in her education. “I realized that we don’t know what 95% of the universe is made of, and that blew my mind,” she says. “That’s when I decided to pursue particle physics.”
Ilic continued her doctoral research at CERN, where she contributed to the statistical analysis for the discovery of the Higgs boson.
In the years he is not teaching high school students, Fish leads workshops at the Perimeter Institute to help other teachers bring particle physics into their classrooms. Each year, approximately 40 or 50 teachers from Canada and other countries attend a week-long EinsteinPlus workshop, participating in a variety of collaborative activities designed to teach them about modern physics. One of the most popular is a card sorting game that teaches standard pattern patterns and symmetries. In each activity, “we ask the teachers to be the students and ask the questions that the students would ask,” says Fish.
Fermilab organizes similar teacher workshops covering various physics topics for primary to secondary school teachers.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many programs to move online, Fermilab has focused on finding ways to interact with teachers and students virtually. “We have career talks with lab staff, classroom presentations that we create with teachers and host virtually, Virtual Ask-a-Scientist, and Saturday Morning Physics,” says Amanda Early, program manager at Education at Fermilab which runs K-12 physical science programs. .
Each year, Fermilab organizes programs for educators and students, engaging them with the science of Fermilab. “The more you expose students to particle physics — the size and scale of it and its benefits — the more opportunities children will see to engage in science,” says Early.
In 2020, one of the Education Group’s summer science institutes focused specifically on helping high school teachers adapt modern physics lessons to the next-generation science standards used in many US states. Approximately 80 teachers from the Chicago area and across the country participated in the five-day interactive workshop, which in 2020 was offered online.
Next Generation Science Standards do not explicitly mention particle physics. But the cross-cutting concepts and scientific and engineering practices that frame them dovetail nicely with the subject, says David Torpe, an Illinois high school science teacher who has led professional development workshops at Fermilab for six years.
“Let’s talk about process, let’s talk about how particle physicists analyze data, let’s talk about how they solve problems,” says Torpe. “The ideas of energy and cause and effect naturally fit in too. I think a good strategy is to find a bit of particle physics that you find interesting and insert it here or there.
Bringing teachers to CERN, and CERN to teachers
Across the Atlantic, in Europe, CERN’s teacher programs attract more than 1,000 secondary school teachers from around the world to Geneva each year. Between physics lessons, professors visit the laboratories and have question-and-answer sessions with CERN scientists.
“The idea was that when we returned to Mexico, we would be ambassadors and encourage certain students to see that it is possible to go and do research at CERN”, explains Eduardo Morales Gamboa, who followed the program of teaching Spanish in 2019.
Since visiting the massive CMS detector and seeing particle tracks in a homemade cloud chamber, he has incorporated particle physics – and the many useful applications that have come from it – into his class discussions of intersections. of science, technology and society. Eventually, he says, he hopes to build a cloud chamber with his students.
According to Wiener, Morales Gamboa’s experience is common. Many alumni of teacher programs even return to CERN, this time with their students for the trip, to ignite the next generation’s enthusiasm for particle physics.
The success of CERN’s outreach efforts stems in part from integration with physics education research. Indeed, CERN teacher programs are designed to equip participants with knowledge not only of particle physics, but also of the best pedagogical practices for science education.
One such practice is to have students move through “predict-observe-explain” cycles. “You encourage students to make a prediction of what will happen before doing the experiment. This way you make sure that they first activate their previous knowledge and become curious about the result,” says Julia Woithe, who coordinates the hands-on learning labs at CERN. “Then, if they’re surprised by the observed result, they have to work out as a team how to explain the differences between their predictions and their observations. This usually leads to a powerful ‘eureka!’ moment.”
In addition to organizing events at CERN, Wiener traveled to India to collaborate with educators from the International School of Geneva in the first science education program in South Asia last year. Eighty teachers from the region participated in the week-long program at Shiv Nadar Noida School in New Delhi.
Vinita Sharat, the school’s STEAM coordinator, taught particle physics for a decade but remembers initially facing resistance from organizations where she previously worked. “The first challenge is to change the mentality of authority,” she says. “They asked why I was teaching it since it’s not part of the curriculum.”
His students, on the other hand, had no scruples. Some found particle physics so fascinating that they stayed online until midnight to discuss quarks and leptons with Sharat. “Students will always be ready to learn something related to nature,” she says.
Sharat fosters the creative side of students in her particle physics classes by encouraging them to write poems, make videos or choreograph dances to explain the concepts they are studying. Like Fish, Sharat stayed in touch with several former students whom she inspired to pursue careers in physics.
“The basis of everything”
After the CERN program at her school, Sharat hopes more teachers across South Asia will incorporate particle physics into their classrooms. And Wiener plans to lead more teaching workshops around the world in the future.
For now, COVID-19 has interrupted in-person professional development workshops. But teachers can still access some online resources: CERN’s hands-on learning lab S’Cool LAB (until recently run by Woithe), the Perimeter Institute, Fermilab and QuarkNet offer free downloads of their teaching materials interactive.
For Morales Gamboa, the benefits of teaching particle physics in high school go beyond encouraging a few students to pursue careers in this field. Talking about connections to engineering shows how abstract scientific ideas are linked to everyday life, while describing massive international projects conveys the key collaborative spirit of modern science.
Stacy Gates, an Illinois high school science teacher who taught at Fermilab’s Summer High School Physics Institute alongside Torpe in 2020, points out that teaching particle physics fosters critical thinking. “I encourage my students to question me when they don’t believe that particles can behave in a certain way,” she says. “It’s such an important skill because that’s what scientists do. They question everything and try to prove and disprove.
Sharat agrees that particle physics holds valuable lessons. No matter where her students go in life, she wants them to understand that “particle physics is the foundation of everything,” she says.
“We should know the reason for our existence. We should know what we are made of.