Cosmic Ray E-Lab gives high-school students taste of modern physics

Students at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., collect data from their muon detector. This group participates in QuarkNet’s Cosmic Ray E-Lab. Standing, from left: Jonathan Burnham, Andrew Peterson, Andy Zhang. Crouching: Shane Corcoran. Photo courtesy of Kevin Martz

Cincinnati teacher Jeff Rodriguez believes that high-school physics courses shouldn’t be limited to lessons on how fast an apple falls once it breaks from the branch. Modern physics, glaringly absent from the high-school curriculum, he said, is not only relevant to our everyday lives, it’s fascinating.

That’s why Rodriguez joined QuarkNet‘s Cosmic Ray E-Lab, a worldwide project in which high-school physics students share and compare cosmic-ray data with other participating schools.

“It’s an opportunity to work on a global experiment,” Rodriguez said. “We’re not just rolling balls down inclined planes.” Rodriguez leads about 20 students in the E-Lab at Anderson High School, where he teaches.

In the Cosmic Ray E-Lab, students learn how to build small cosmic-ray detectors, which they keep in their classrooms. They study the data they collect and learn how to compare their measurements with their predictions—just as any professional scientist would do. And, much like physicists working on global experiments, they collaborate with other schools to learn how they run their experiments, looking for differences in their data.

Last month, the students participated in the annual International Muon Week, coordinated by Bob Peterson of the Fermilab Education Office and QuarkNet. The week was set aside for E-Lab students from 26 schools to collectively measure the rate that muons in cosmic rays arrive in their detectors.

Shawn Corcoran, a student in Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., said the experience exposed him to particle physics in a way that couldn’t be replicated in chalkboard lectures.

“We never would have learned about cosmic rays without also learning about this detector technology,” Corcoran said. “We’re glad that QuarkNet exists. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had this chance.”

In the run-up to International Muon Week, Corcoran’s teacher Kevin Martz worked with Rodriguez to develop a database that would allow the schools to easily get in touch with each other and to pool their data. They even created a Google map of E-Lab participants. That way, no matter where in the world a high-school researcher was studying muons from cosmic rays, he or she could connect easily with a fellow student doing the same thing.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could all do this at the same time?'” Martz said. “We were thinking of this as a way to foster a sense of community, to compare what we’ve done.” Corcoran’s group collaborated with a high-school group in Japan. Although the time difference was inconvenient, it wasn’t a barrier.

“It’s cool to connect with another high school around the world that’s doing the same thing we’re doing,” Corcoran said. Rodriguez and Martz hope that next year, even more schools will participate.

And is looking at charts full of numbers really much more scintillating than watching balls roll down inclined planes? Rodriguez said the magic of learning modern physics arrives when students finally have hard evidence that the detectors show things we couldn’t know without them.

“The detectors are picking up stuff you can’t see,” Rodriguez said. “The unknown can scare some students, but understanding it is exciting.”

Leah Hesla