Learning to Build a Cosmic Ray Detector

July 19th, 2012
A three-day workshop in which high school physics teachers worked on building and using cosmic ray detectors concludes today at the University of California, Riverside.  The workshop is sponsored by Quarknet, a project headquartered in Fermilab that provides professional development and on-going support for physics teachers.

Nine local high school physics teachers from Riverside and San Bernardino counties participated in the workshop, which took place in the Physics Building.  The teachers will take the cosmic ray detectors they built to their classrooms for use by their students in research projects.  The detectors measure the rate, energy and direction of cosmic rays.

John Ellison, a professor of physics and astronomy at UC Riverside, ran the workshop, which was held for the third time in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Ellison, who has a grant from Quarknet, was assisted by Robert Clare and Stephen Wimpenny, also professors of physics and astronomy.

“The workshop brings modern particle physics into the high school classroom, and gives the students the opportunity to work on a research project and learn how science is really done,” Ellison said.

On July 16, the first day of the workshop, the teachers built the detectors from the component parts, and hooked it to a computer. Then they calibrated the detector and started taking data. Yesterday, they continued taking data, which they subsequently uploaded to a website to do analysis.  Today, the last day of the workshop, the teachers will continue with data analysis and discuss the kinds of research projects that can be done with the detectors in their classrooms.

Dolly Bergen, a teacher at Santiago High School in the Corona-Norco Unified School District with a keen interest in particle physics, believes her students will be excited to build a cosmic ray detector later this year.  She plans to incorporate building the detector as one of the projects in an after-school program at her school.

“Building the detector themselves will not only be a cool, hands-on exercise for my students, but it also will show them that cosmic rays are everywhere,” she said.

Kris Whelan, the regional manager for Quarknet, explained that most physics teachers today had very little particle physics knowledge presented to them when they were students.

“We are trying to help teachers with particle physics content and an inquiry-based training so that they can go back to their classes and share with their students some authentic research experience,” said Whelan, the go-to person for 16 out of a total of 53 Quarknet centers in the country.

Quarknet began in 1999.  It receives support from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, two experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, and Fermilab.

Teachers participating in the Quarknet workshop at UCR receive a daily stipend of $100, free parking and lunch.

Provided by University of California - Riverside

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