Teachers give old methods the boot at QuarkNet camp

High school teachers from all over the country gathered at Fermilab in July for a one-week workshop as part of the QuarkNet program. Teachers worked together in groups to solve physics problems using real LHC data.

Forty one teachers from across the country learned about what it was like to work as part of a physics collaboration during the QuarkNet Boot camp at Fermilab in July. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Boot camp usually brings to mind the mud crawling, wall scaling tasks of military freshmen. But boot camp this summer at Fermilab had a very different connotation. For a week in July, 41 high school physics teachers from all over the U.S. came together for a crash course in scientific collaboration.

“This is a great experience. I’m here because I wanted to learn more about the science and how it is done,” said Jim Ferrara, a physics instructor from Bernards High School in New Jersey. “I want to bring that back to students and be able to excite them about what we’re doing.”

QuarkNet is a program connecting high school physics teachers and their students with particle physicists in universities and national laboratories throughout the U.S. At this year’s QuarkNet Boot Camp, teams of teachers divided into small color-coded groups analyzed LHC data to tackle physics problems, such as finding the invariant mass of the Z boson. This was the first year that the Boot Camp participants had used real data, which is messier and more challenging than the simulated data used in the workshop’s two previous incarnations.

“Using real data from the LHC stretches people in terms of concepts. This is a higher level of data, so it was nice to see that the participants arrived at their destination,” said Ken Cecire, QuarkNet staff member.

The primary goal of the workshop was for teachers to learnabout physics, teamwork and teaching. The workshop also served as an opportunity for teachers to bring what they learned back to the classroom and their local QuarkNet center.

“This is a highly-valued immersive experience,” said Marge Bardeen, head of Fermilab’s Education Office. “This is food for teachers.”

During their week at Fermilab, teachers also had a chance to talk to scientists, learn from a lecture and tour the facilities.

“It is good to be aware of the cutting edge work in physics. When we’re teaching physics, we’re actually teaching history. By the time it gets to the textbooks, its old,” said Richard Brockhaus, a high school physics teacher from Bethesda, Maryland. “Also, it is good to be confronted with the hard stuff, because we expect students to confront hard stuff.”

For co-facilitators Deborah Roudenbush and Jodi Hansen, making sure the teachers left with a well-rounded, eye-opening experience was key.

“My part in the QuarkNet project is probably the single most important thing that I do,” Roudenbush said. “It is important to spend time with teachers to help them be the best teachers that they can be.”

Rhianna Wisniewski