High-school physics teachers become scientists for a week at QuarkNet Boot Camp

A 2011 QuarkNet Boot Camp participant presents the results of her week-long analysis at the culminating poster session. Photo: Cindy Arnold

This week in a bit of role reversal, Fermilab scientists teach high-energy physics to high school physics teachers, while the teachers analyze data as particle physicists would do. The week-long exercise is part of the laboratory’s annual QuarkNet Boot Camp.

“In one week, we put teachers through activities to get them as close to being scientists as they can,” said QuarkNet Project Coordinator and Fermilab user Tom Jordan.

QuarkNet is a professional development program sponsored by DOE, NSF and participating institutions that allows physics teachers from around the United States to network with particle physicists at universities and laboratories. This year about 30 teachers from as far away as Hawaii are attending Fermilab’s Boot Camp.

For the first two days, scientists will give Boot Camp participants a crash course in understanding what properties collider detectors measure. After that, participants will split into smaller groups and spend the following couple of days analyzing several data sets containing multiple observations of similar particles. The CMS collaboration has released these data for public use.

Though the learning curve is steep, the physics principles used to reconstruct an event are no different from those the teachers already know, including the conservation of energy and the conservation of momentum. QuarkNet week provides a new way to apply familiar rules.

“We give them data and have them figure it out, watch them get frustrated – but not too frustrated,” Jordan said. “We don’t tell them, ‘It’s a Z boson.’ They analyze it and, by the end, they’re telling us what a Z boson is.”

The capstone event is the poster session, the culmination of a week of the participants’ analyzing, interrogating each other and defending their arguments.

“At the start of the week the teachers are polite, deferential,” Jordan said. “By Wednesday or Thursday, they’re more confident, asking good questions.”

The poster session will take place on Friday, July 27, at 4 p.m. in the Wilson Hall atrium, directly after the director’s coffee break. All are invited to attend.

Leah Hesla