reWorking Michigan: MSU gives HS teachers advanced physics training

East Lansing, MI –

Michigan has been working hard to improve its rust-belt image and gear its economy toward technology and innovation. One path of success is to get more students interested in studying high-tech and science related fields. And many believe getting their teachers interested in science and technology would help. Michigan State University hosts a wide range of summer classes for students and teachers. | SKIP down to article

Right now there are millions of tiny particles from outer space racing through your body. You've probably heard that before. Maybe you pondered the reality of little bits of matter so small and traveling so fast that they shoot through you without your even noticing. Or maybe you never gave it a second thought.

Either way, about two dozen high-school science teachers have been studying these micro-meteors. The Physics of Atomic Nuclei program or PAN for short is run out of the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University.

"So, we are in one of the vaults in the research area," says Zach Constan, outreach coordinator for the Lab. The vault we're in is under six feet of concrete.

"What we're looking at are two detectors named Mona and Lisa. Mona is the modular Neutron Array. And then on the left is the Large, Multi-institutional Scintillator Array."

Mona and Lisa don't in anyway resemble their artistic namesake. They look more like large plastic shipping crates with lots of wires poking out of the ends. Mona and Lisa are detecting those super fast, super tiny particles by using special clear plastic strips buried inside.

"That particular kind of plastic will scintillate, glow purple when bombarded with either neutrons, which is what we usually do experiments with, or muons, cosmic rays from space," Constan says. "And that's what the teachers are currently detecting in those things."

Kelly Burke teaches high school physics in Woodstock, Georgia. She says getting her hands on the same equipment and doing some of the same experiments as top-level researchers helps her teach physics to her students. She's been sending regular texts to her class throughout the week.

"And I'm telling them what I am experiencing now in a real laboratory tied into what I taught them last year," she says. "Because we already started school. We're in school now. And that's how I let them know that what I taught them goes on in a real lab, even here at the national lab."

Burke says the PAN program also helps make the connection between research and the marketplace.

"And what's neat is how the pure science, the research, eventually becomes applicable science. Air conditioners, cell phones, computers," says Burke. "It all started with the scientist saying "I wonder what would happen if I wonder why this works?"

Zach Constan says getting students and teacher directly involved with science through programs like PAN has paid off for the university and for the economy. He says it's a "big deal" in a time when the United States lags behind many other countries in math and science studies.

"The advantage is; in a laboratory like this on a university campus, students have access," he says. "They do top level research. And that's a major part of what we want to do. Obviously top level nuclear science, yes. But, training the next generation. It's a big deal."

The Physics of Atomic Nuclei program also has a session for high school students who are interested in nuclear physics.

reWorking Michigan
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