Notre Dame-led program brings hands-on physics to high schoolers
A group of physicists, teachers, high school students and parents, fresh from a day at physics boot camp, huddled around their butcher paper-topped table inside an Italian chain restaurant in Virginia and learned the finer points of elementary particle physics.
“It’s about human relations, about people, and making teachers know that they’re part of very important research, and then they can pass their enthusiasm onto their students.”
Restaurant-provided crayons in hand, Randy Ruchti, a Notre Dame particle physics professor, was diagramming high-energy particle production and decay and talking about quarks and gluons and protons and pions. The topic was well beyond the scope of most at the table, but he patiently outlined the theory in words everyone could understand.
“It just blew my mind,” Deborah Roudebush, a high school physics teacher in Fairfax, Virginia, remembers of that day in 2002. “There’s this mishmash of people, and there is Randy, a brilliant physicist, color coding these concepts with crayons at a table in the middle of a Macaroni Grill.”
Ruchti was in the midst of what some describe as a brilliant and successful idea — not about quantum chromodynamics, but about how to spread excitement for particle physics. When Ruchti encounters a so-called “unsolvable” problem, he has an uncanny knack for working with others to quietly devise a creative solution. In 1993, nine years before meeting Roudebush, the problem he saw was the impending demise of particle physics research in the United States.
After this revelation, Ruchti and a group of others worked together steadily over several years, refining the idea that in 1998 became QuarkNet, a program that brings university-level research to high school physics teachers in various centers across the country.
The United States Congress five years earlier had axed funding for a Reagan-era–developed project called the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), a behemoth of an instrument dubbed the “Desertron” because of its location in Texas. A high-energy particle collider like the SSC is a machine that propels charged particles to 99.9999999 percent the speed of light, smashes them into each other and gathers oodles of data with hopes that new particles or other discoveries will be detected after the collisions. The budget for the SSC had ballooned $7 billion over the original proposal, and many didn’t see the point of spending more tax money to search for something they didn’t understand. Physicists who had worked on the project since 1982 lost their jobs, abandoned their Texas homes and left physics forever. Work would later be redirected to a smaller and less powerful particle collider called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland.
Ruchti was accustomed to change. He grew up as the son of an American diplomat in the 1950s and ’60s and had moved frequently as a child because of his father’s job. Because he had worked at Notre Dame since 1977, he quickly recovered from what he calls the “bitter pill” of the budget cut, and transferred his research projects to CERN and Fermilab, the country’s particle physics laboratory near Chicago.
Even though he didn’t lose his own job, the societal problem of a lack of public investment in physics bothered him. His wife suggested he consider a teaching solution to re-engage the public with physics. After all, Ruchti was a teacher — not only to his physics students, but also to his two children, who learned about the constellations from him while they walked their dogs at night.
He pondered her suggestion in silence. He realized that it’s important not only to have funding support, but also to have support from the broader public who value long-term research. “And that’s hard to do,” explains Ruchti, because the science of particle physics involves a long-term commitment, and most people want an immediate return on investment. “But the science we do is not for short-term benefit; it takes a very long time, and if suddenly your funding is lost after five years into something, it’s hugely harmful.”
Shortly after the SSC was canceled, Ruchti and several others were invited to Arlington, Virginia, to discuss the broader impacts of research in science. After two days of the workshop, Ruchti met with two other physicists over dinner — Oliver “Keith” Baker of Hampton University, who now teaches at Yale University, and Michael Barnett of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California — to chat about a teaching approach to building interest in particle physics. Barnett later invited Marjorie Bardeen, a former middle school teacher who had been serving for a decade at Fermilab as head of the education office, whom he knew from laboratory programs through the Department of Energy. They put their heads together: What if interest could be revived by teaching high school teachers more about the exciting experiments university physicists were doing? What if the high school teachers could complete hands-on research alongside physicists and others? Perhaps they could help build the parts, and maybe even install them at the collider in CERN? If those teachers could convey their enthusiasm to their students, the group reasoned, then in less than 10 years a new generation of U.S. particle physicists might be conducting their own research.
Bardeen, Ruchti, Barnett and Baker formed the program and developed the first four flagship QuarkNet centers, including the center at Notre Dame. After receiving initial funding from the National Science Foundation in 1998, they strengthened and enhanced it. But QuarkNet would not have passed muster for a critical five-year funding cycle in front of the proposal review panel in 2002 had it not been for 16-year-old student Amy DeCelles, who traveled to Washington, D.C., with Ruchti and other physicists and staff teachers as a student ambassador. During Ruchti’s presentation, when one review panel member asserted that “this sounds like one of those programs where you have students do your grunt work,” Amy protested. Without any prodding from Ruchti or the others in the group, she immediately jumped out of her seat. Demonstrating the poise of a charismatic adult, she faced the panel and described how she worked on an experiment for CERN that would be put into use.
Immediately the panel’s attitude changed, Ruchti remembers, adding, “I could see it in their faces.”
The NSF panel awarded QuarkNet enough funding to start 11 more centers nationwide, and to train at least 24 more lead physics staff to mentor the high school teachers and their students. DeCelles, now an associate professor of mathematics at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, doesn’t remember the details as vividly, but does remember her research at Notre Dame’s QuarkNet center, a remodeled Aldi grocery store building two blocks from campus. She also remembers how informal lunches there boosted her confidence.
“I thought the guys knew more than I did, because of the way they spoke,” she said. “But I also remember in one of those settings, around the table, discovering that I knew more than most of them — they just acted more confident than girls. At QuarkNet, a light bulb went on for me, that physics or math was something I could pursue.”
And the idea, sparked by a Notre Dame professor and other collaborators, ignited a flame. “It was brilliant,” said Bardeen, who is retired from Fermilab but continues to work as a volunteer for QuarkNet. “This idea … no one else in the world had ever approached physics education like this before.”
“Without QuarkNet, there would be a void in physics education, because the relationships built among high school teachers, university researchers and high school students are key to future particle physics research.”
Ruchti enjoys the idea and planning phases of projects and prefers to leave critical day-to-day details of them to others with expert management skills. That’s why, in addition to also joining the National Science Foundation part-time while continuing his professorship at Notre Dame, he handed the principal investigator duties of QuarkNet off to fellow Notre Dame physics professor Mitchell Wayne. QuarkNet has been Wayne’s responsibility for about 15 years, and he has continued to shepherd the program during much of its now 20-year existence. Given the uncertain scientific funding climate in Washington, Wayne worked throughout the summer and fall of 2018 to assure the program would receive another five-year funding grant from the National Science Foundation. The $4.25 million, five-year award is less money than in the past, but it’s enough to fund the now 52 QuarkNet centers at universities and laboratories across the country, including facilities at different universities such as Johns Hopkins, Rice and Catholic University of America. Particle physics laboratories including Fermilab near Chicago — an equal partner with Notre Dame, which was involved with the ideas, design and management of QuarkNet from the beginning — and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California are among the other QuarkNet centers.
Active QuarkNet Centers
“Professor Wayne was tireless in his efforts to secure this important funding to continue QuarkNet, and we are thankful to the NSF for continuing to trust in the value of the program,” said Mary Galvin, the William K. Warren Foundation Dean of the College of Science. “Without QuarkNet, there would be a void in physics education, because the relationships built among high school teachers, university researchers and high school students are key to future particle physics research.”
Quantitatively measuring the success of the program and its contributions to U.S. particle physics is difficult, because the program doesn’t track the careers of its graduates. However, nearly 2,000 physics teachers and more than 4,000 students have participated in the program, each learning the finer points of particle physics from university professors or master teachers. Centers have different focuses, depending on their research skills and programs, but teachers and students can take advantage of the different opportunities, including research and “master classes” that allow them to hone skills in different areas.
As a professional development program, QuarkNet educates teachers about experimental and theoretical particle physics and provides teaching strategies and instructional resources so they can bring their knowledge to the classroom. Programs are offered year-round for those who wish to participate, and different centers provide varying levels of programming. Notre Dame’s center is one of the few to offer weekly evening get-togethers for high school science teachers, who chat about everything from elementary particles to colliding galaxies to teaching methods.
Ken Cecire, a QuarkNet national staff teacher based at Notre Dame, helps facilitate the meetings. He discovered QuarkNet while doing research at the Thomas Jefferson National Laboratory in Newport News, Virginia, as a physics teacher. In addition to hosting the weekly gatherings, Cecire works with a nationwide team of teachers to develop master classes and co-coordinates the International Masterclasses program with a colleague at Technische Universität in Dresden, Germany. Teachers and students in any of the centers can access any of the activities.
On a snowy mid-November morning last fall, Cecire, fueled mostly by coffee, traipsed into the Eddy Street QuarkNet Center. He had stayed up all night administering a relatively new activity for students who want to expand their skills: Worldwide Data Day. Visible on Cecire’s computer monitor were four students from Israel chatting with a physics professor from Italy. Physics professors from around the globe were available live during different time slots within a 24-hour period to video conference with students and answer questions. Eight hundred students from 64 institutions participated in 2018, using recorded data taken from one of the experiments from the LHC, displayed as graphics, to detect muons — unstable elementary particles produced in the accelerator when protons collide — which are important to the search for discovery of new physics.
The other QuarkNet national staff teacher, Shane Wood, who is based in Minnesota, also assists with master classes, workshop planning and ongoing support. He and others are working on a new class about neutrinos, fundamental particles that some call the “ghost particles” of the Standard Model of physics because they are incredibly difficult to detect. The center of the neutrino physics world is at Fermilab, but with the master class, enrolled teachers will be able to learn all about the elusive particles no matter where their schools may be located.
In addition to developing programs that are purely about physics, however, Wood has partnered with a few collaborators including artist Agnes Chavez of Taos, New Mexico. The Cuban-American artist is developing a projection art installation at CERN, which was a result of her studies at the facility, guided by a physicist there. Wood has worked with Chavez on five workshops at schools in New Mexico with a high percentage of American Indian students.
“In QuarkNet, one issue we look at is how we can expand our reach beyond the average white student of a certain socioeconomic status who is interested in physics,” Wood said, noting that Hampton University, a historically black university, was a charter QuarkNet center in 1998. “These workshops combine the Western science with native traditions as a way to process the students’ understanding.”
While special programs happen year-round, the “meat” of the QuarkNet experience happens during the summer workshops for teachers. At most centers, teachers are granted stipends to assist with different experiments during the first year. At Notre Dame, each teacher is allowed to sponsor one student per summer. Although the teachers receive stipends, and students have in the past at half of the centers, all will be required to find new ways to pay for the students’ stipends in 2019 because the new NSF grant no longer funds that portion.
At Notre Dame, where physicists including Wayne do research at the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment (CMS) at CERN, most of the summer QuarkNet activities revolve around completing tasks for that experiment. Sixteen students and 16 teachers were part of the program this past summer. In July 2018, students including Kaitlyn Cullers, a senior at Bremen High School in Indiana, sat at a bench and threaded fiber optics through anodized metal plates the size of postcards, and incorporated them into boxes called optical decoder units. The units, which transform the light into an electrical signal that can be digitized and used to identify subatomic particles, are now being installed in Geneva at the LHC in the CMS experiment’s detector.
Though the teachers enjoy their professional development time, working with students is among the most exciting aspects of the experience, several teachers noted. Most students who join the program are initially anxious about their roles, but grow as the summer progresses.
“That first day, the students don’t want to talk to each other, and they’re all from different schools and they’re all very nervous,” said Rebekah Randall, a teacher at Marian High School in Mishawaka, Indiana. “But it’s good for them, and they may be in a place where suddenly they’re not the smartest kid anymore, so they’re out of their comfort zone. But that happens to everyone someday, and it’s so good for them at this point in their lives.”
Great interest in particle physics increased after 2012, when two of the large detectors at the LHC discovered a particle called the Higgs boson that bridged a gap in the understanding of the Standard Model of physics, according to Ruchti. But enthusiasm waned afterwards when no other new particles were immediately detected, in spite of strong theoretical motivation. To search for new physics beyond the Higgs, the LHC is undergoing major renovations that will take at least seven years to complete, and data won’t be collected for 10. The long wait means that the physics profession requires graduate students in 2027 to perform the work, thereby continuing to make the QuarkNet program a crucial ingredient in cultivating early interest among high school students across the country.
For researchers, having access to or starting a QuarkNet center at a university gives them a chance to cite “broader impacts” of their work when applying for NSF grants for their research at the LHC or other particle physics facilities, Ruchti said. Proposals not only have to show intellectual, scientific merit, but also must demonstrate how they connect with the broader community. These can include hosting shows at planetariums or museums, starting websites, writing textbooks or helping at science fairs. But QuarkNet’s involvement allows a method where physicists can participate in a program that builds upon the already collaborative particle physics community while involving others in a tangible, trusted way.
“Researchers can say that as part of my broader impacts, I am going to be running a summer program, attracting teachers in, and they’re going to be engaged in the science that I’m doing … and this is a way to reach more students,” Ruchti said.
For teachers, QuarkNet’s most important contribution is the confidence it builds within them to teach the highly complicated subject of particle physics at the high school level. “It’s a subject that tends to be at the end of the science book, so to speak, so they hardly ever get there in class,” Bardeen noted from her desk on the 15th floor of Fermilab, which has a sweeping view of the 6,800-acre property that includes a prairie, wetlands and woods above a particle accelerator complex that now serves as the nexus for neutrino physics for the international particle physics community. “When we have our summer programs, we plan breaks so the teachers and physicists can mingle over coffee and cookies, and a Nobel laureate can be talking to a high school teacher. It’s about human relations, about people, and making teachers know that they’re part of very important research, and then they can pass their enthusiasm on to their students.”
Future expansion of the program includes tasking teachers to help lead different programs, such as the Worldwide Data Day and others, building master classes in neutrino physics and continuing to involve underrepresented groups that might not otherwise have much exposure to particle physics, Cecire said. And because of additional funding granted through Notre Dame International, he has been able to visit Mexico to pinpoint pyramids in which to bring a cosmic ray detector to determine if any of the Aztec or Mayan structures have any hidden rooms. A different group of researchers, not associated with QuarkNet, used cosmic rays in 2017 to discover a previously unknown void and ramp inside the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Because of all of the success and expansion of QuarkNet, Bardeen and other founders are proud that the program has continued for 20 years, with more to go.
“The QuarkNet story is really remarkable,” Wayne said. “I’m not sure anybody would have imagined that the original concept developed by Keith, Marge, Michael and Randy would eventually become the most recognized education and outreach program in high-energy physics. The fact that QuarkNet is entering its third decade of continuous operation and still going strong is a testament to the importance of the program and the great work done by all the people involved. We are proud of our role helping create and lead QuarkNet through the years, and we are grateful to Notre Dame for the University’s continued support of our efforts.”