Fermilab physicist Skypes with Pittsburgh classroom

Physics students at Peters Township High School in Pennsylvania participate in a Skype in the Classroom call with Fermilab scientist Mike Cooke and two ATLAS physicists. Photo courtesy of Susan Hlebinsky

In an effort to inspire the next generation of scientists, last month Fermilab scientist Mike Cooke, along with two physicists from CERN’s ATLAS experiment, chatted via Skype with 64 students at Peters Township High School in McMurray, Penn., as part of Skype in the Classroom, a program that sets up free Internet calls between teachers, students and experts.

Fermilab’s involvement in the call, which focused on the Higgs boson, was orchestrated by Marge Bardeen, the manager of Fermilab’s Education Office, who is also co-chair of the International Particle Physics Outreach Group. Bardeen saw it as an opportunity to excite both future physicists and future supporters of science.

“If science doesn’t reach out, if scientists can’t talk about what they do, they’re not going to have the support they need in order to do the research they are passionate about,” Bardeen said. “So they have to become good communicators and reach out and explain what they’re doing and why it’s important.”

Cooke, who won the 2010 Director’s Award for volunteer service, was a natural choice to participate in the call. He said the students asked about a dozen questions they had prepared ahead of time, ranging from technical questions about how detectors work to more broad ones about the significance of studying particle physics—especially after the discovery of the Higgs boson.

“It’s a very exciting time, and there are still questions,” Cooke said. “That excitement about the field is why I wanted to do physics, and I try to communicate this to the students.”

If the students’ reactions are any indication, Cooke did just that. Susan Hlebinsky, the teacher who headed the call, said one student came up to her after the talk, newly aware of all the mysteries of the universe still waiting to be solved.

“He came up to me and said, ‘We think we know so much, but after listening to them I see how much more there is for me to learn,'” Hlebinsky said. “I love physics. Not all of my students will love physics, but I want them to see how important it is and how they can better interact with the world in which they find themselves.”

Laura Dattaro