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A disCERNing approach to science: a SAHETI teacher visits the physics capital of the world

| November 16, 2015 | 0 Comments

Lizelle Swanepoel, head of science at SAHETI School in Bedfordview, Johannesburg, Gauteng, recently returned from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN),1 located on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland.

CERN houses the world’s largest particle collider (the LHC or Large Hadron Collider) in an underground tunnel 27 km in circumference. CERN does research on the basic constituents of matter by colliding beams of protons at the unprecedented energy of TeV, just under the speed of light. Fundamental particles produced in these collisions are studied with the aid of huge detectors. CERN is the birthplace of the World Wide Web, the touchscreen and positron emission tomography (PET) (an imaging test that allows doctors to check for disease in the body), and is also famous for its discovery of the Higgs boson – a subatomic particle.

An exclusive invitation

Swanepoel was invited to attend a three-week residential programme at CERN and get a taste of frontier research in modern physics. Participants in the programme were selected from 32 countries. She was one of 50 teachers who took part from 5 to 25 July this year, and was the only teacher from the African continent. SAHETI School and the University of Cape Town funded the trip.

Swanepoel participated in CERN HST, an annual teachers’ programme established in 1998. It is aimed at helping science teachers to bring modern physics into the classroom and motivate their students to study science at tertiary level, with specific focus on the specialised fields of particle physics, cosmology, astrophysics and engineering. The programme is open to high school science teachers from all CERN member and non-member states, subject to funding.

Innovation and collaboration at CERN

The grand scale of innovation at CERN is impressive. After its discovery of the Higgs boson a few years ago, a second run of experiments started this year. Since then, CERN scientists have discovered another new particle, called the pentaquark. “I feel extremely privileged to have been at CERN during that time, attending a lecture on the pentaquark just days after its discovery,” enthuses Swanepoel.

The two large LHC general-purpose detectors at CERN, ATLAS and CMS, work separately but in collaboration. ATLAS4 was the first to confirm the discovery of the Higgs. There are many other experiments going on at CERN, including ISOLDE (the radioactive ion beam facility); COMPASS, which looks at the structure of hadrons by using beams from the Super Proton Synchrotron; AMS, which analyses data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA)5 International Space Station to look for dark matter, antimatter and missing matter; ALICE (a large ion collider experiment) and the AD (anti-matter factory), to name a few.

The feeling of collaboration and discovery is tangible at CERN, with scientists from all over the world (including South Africa) working together all year round. Says Swanepoel: “It was a hub of activity while I was there, with so many postgraduate students from across the world involved in experiments. Young and old all contribute to physics there. It is not uncommon to see really old people shuffling through the corridors, who still make an active contribution to high-energy physics. I had never seen a Nobel Prize winner in my life until I went to CERN, where it is not uncommon to see several in one day! This is truly the most inspiring place on earth from my scientific point of view.”

What a difference a day makes

Swanepoel’s programme comprised two to three hours per day of lectures6 in particle physics, cosmology and astrophysics; visits to facilities and experiments; workshops; hands-on work such as cloud chamber experiments; time spent on chosen projects for presentation at the end of the course; and social events, such as the Geneva treasure hunt and several official dinners. The programme also included Q&A sessions with LHC experiment leaders and engineers and a special session with CERN’s director general, Professor Rolf Heuer, in the CERN council chamber, where participants discussed the future of CERN, physics education, CERN in the media and films, educating the press, building trust in science and handing over the reins in 2016. Adds Swanepoel: “What a thrill that was. I also met CERN’s next director general, Professor Fabiola Gianotti, who will be the first woman to head CERN. She is a true inspiration!”

Swanepoel’s decision to apply for an international course of this calibre at the world’s most progressive physics institute was aimed at enriching the experience of her pupils. She points out that science at SAHETI is benefiting from a combination of factors, including inspired staff members who deliver high- quality teaching, as a result of professional development opportunities such as CERN HST.

SAHETI pupils have shown a growing interest in science, evidenced by their achievements at science expos over the past few years since Swanepoel became department head. This year, 17 medals were scooped by SAHETI’s high school participants for their projects in the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists, which took place at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.7 According to Swanepoel, students develop scientific and innovation skills by competing in such events.

Don’t delay

Swanepoel concludes: “During my time at CERN, I had the most scintillating experience: one that I will cherish for a lifetime and that I will share with students in years to come. I hope to take a group of my students back to CERN in the near future. Connections made with CERN scientists and teachers from so many different countries have been most valuable in terms of combined projects for our classrooms, which will expose our students to CERN’s spirit of collaboration. It would greatly benefit science education in South Africa if more teachers could visit CERN, and discover the meaning of collaboration and internationalism from its scientists and engineers.”


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Category: Summer 2015

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