University of Rochester

Local Physics Teachers Head for Summer School to Pick Apart the Mysteries of Matter

July 27, 2000

While most students have thrown off the mantle of learning for the summer, a dozen local high school teachers are heading back to the classroom to become students themselves. For three weeks they'll be learning about smashing atoms, teasing out the secrets of quarks, and even building their own cosmic ray detectors, all so they can excite their own students about physics in the fall.

Kevin McFarland, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, and Arie Bodek, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, are heading up the program, called Quarknet. "These teachers are coming here because they want to learn about the latest in physics and take that knowledge back to their students," McFarland says. The teachers take time out from their own summer vacations to prepare for fall classes, some of them driving in from as far as Naples.

Two local teachers, Susen Clark of Benjamin Franklin High School, Rochester, and Paul Pavone of Pittsford Sutherland High School, both of whom attended last year's Quarknet program in Chicago, have helped design and will help teach this year's course.

"I was a middle school teacher last year," says Clark, "but I was really in the dark about the cutting-edge of physics. I wanted to learn more and stay current, and this year I'm able to help other teachers do the same. We hope they can take that knowledge back to their classrooms."

The 12 teachers will each build their own particle physics detector from raw materials, learning about the physics involved as they analyze the cosmic ray information they collect. The detectors look a bit like over-sized Ping-Pong paddles, made of a type of plastic that glows when struck by charged particles. In the handle is a device that can detect that glow. When a cosmic ray, a type of charged particle, passes through the flat paddle, it creates a tiny burst of detectable light-unfortunately, the detectors pick up a lot of background noise, making it hard to distinguish that burst of light. To compensate, the teachers will connect two paddles and wait for a cosmic ray to pass through both. A computer attached to the detectors will watch for the double-bursts, ignoring other signals as background noise. Perhaps the most challenging part for the teachers will be learning to draw conclusions from the reams of data their detectors will generate, and deciding what sorts of experiments will be most interesting to their students.

The teachers begin the program on July 31, pausing for one day to visit the Cornell Synchrotron, a particle accelerator at Cornell University in Ithaca.

Once the course is completed, the detectors become part of an equipment lending library in the physics and astronomy department, so any teacher can borrow a detector for weeks at a time and demonstrate it to his or her class. Many of the lectures the teachers will attend will have interactive components that will be posted on the web, so the teachers can share them with their classes and other teachers throughout the school year. It's this end result of introducing tomorrow's scientists to the field of high-energy physics that prompted the National Science Foundation to fund this project and the 11 others at universities with high-energy programs around the country.