QuarkNet brings particle physics to African schoolrooms

Ken Cecire demonstrates the QuarkNet cosmic ray detector for students at the Lycee Notre Dame de Citeaux in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Tom McCauley

In the summer of 2016, QuarkNet staff teacher Ken Cecire made his way from South Bend, Indiana, across the Atlantic Ocean with a desktop cosmic ray detector in the belly of the airplane.

Cecire, who works for the University of Notre Dame, has for years responded to invitations to show high school students and teachers how real-world particle physics research is done. He has conducted classes in the Americas, Asia and Europe as part of QuarkNet outreach activities.

Last summer, QuarkNet — a program originated at Fermilab, Lawrence Berkeley Lab and the University of Notre Dame — went to Africa at the behest of the African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications (ASP). Cecire and his colleagues conducted QuarkNet workshops for the first time in Kigali, Rwanda, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Cecire and physicist Tom McCauley, who is based at the European laboratory CERN, first visited Kigali, where over the course of a week they facilitated masterclass workshops for local teachers at the University of Rwanda and for students at three different high schools.

In masterclasses, students discuss their analyses of real experimental data with scientists who are also working on the experiment. Cecire and McCauley, accompanied by several physicists participating in ASP, discussed the giant experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider — ATLAS and CMS — and, using cards that showed different patterns of particle interactions, showed students how to deduce the various particle physics processes that would be in play in a real detector.

“We give them event displays, and they analyze the data and come to conclusions,” Cecire said.

The Kigali visit was one part of the African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications, which was coordinated this year by the Rwanda Ministry of Education and Ketevi Assamgan, head of the African School who is also from Brookhaven National Laboratory. The three-week school takes place every two years in a different city on the continent. Students from across Africa come to the school to learn the basics of theoretical and experimental particle physics.

The QuarkNet contingent then traveled to Addis Ababa. Former Fermilab postdoctoral researcher Claudia Frugiuele, now at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, organized the Ethiopia workshops. High school students and teachers learned how to analyze real data coming from the CMS experiment and to build and use a detector that collects data from cosmic rays. Tilahun Tesfaye, a professor at Addis Ababa University, will help maintain the cosmic ray detector for use by future students and teachers.

Students at the Hillside School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, participate in the CMS masterclass. Photo: Tom McCauley

While they were in the city, McCauley gave a presentation to graduate students at Addis Ababa University, where participants — including high schoolers and undergraduates — also got to take a virtual visit of CMS at CERN in Switzerland, connecting online with people staffing the CMS control room.

“Everyone had a lot of questions,” McCauley said. “Their enthusiasm was incredible.”

High school students are first given the physics background they need and then use that knowledge to analyze the LHC data. This year, the African School of Physics offered an additional class for its graduate students in which they analyzed ATLAS data in a masterclass format. Some will be able to lead a masterclass when they go home.

“This way, they can bring techniques to teach physics back to their own country,” Cecire said. “They learn that investigation from the bottom up essentially and then they can lead it with their own students.”

QuarkNet staff and host physicists have conducted many data analysis masterclasses internationally, and the collaboration has distributed hundreds of cosmic ray detectors around the world so student groups can conduct original research on cosmic rays.

“For most of these kids, it’s their first exposure to particle physics,” Cecire said. “They’re fun to work with, but they also do great work.”