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Districts in Particle-Smasher’s Tex. Home Warily Eye Debate

By Peter West — September 16, 1992 5 min read

WASHINGTON--As Congress prepares to decide the fate of the superconducting supercollider--a massive, high-energy research facility--educators in the small North Texas towns that surround the project are watching the debate with a mixture of anticipation and concern.

A House-Senate conference committee is scheduled this month to decide whether the federal government should provide $550 million of the estimated $8.25 billion needed to complete construction of the device, which has been described as the largest scientific instrument in history.

Its supporters also say the huge particle-smasher offers educators in Texas and elsewhere a rare opportunity to bring cutting-edge science into the classroom.

Still in its early stages of construction, the supercollider would consist of a ring of magnets, 54 miles in circumference, in which protons would be accelerated at velocities approaching the speed of light. Scientists believe that the collisions that result between particles may approximate the conditions at the time of the “big bang,’' or the theoretical beginning of the universe.

Such experiments, they say, could provide an unmatched insight into the origins and characteristics of matter. They add that research using the S.S.C. could lead to practical applications in the fields of medical diagnosis, computer technology, and high-speed magnetically levitated trains.

But debate exists in both the scientific and political arenas over whether such massive support for a single project will crowd out funding for a large number of smaller, but equally promising, experiments.

The House voted 231 to 182 in June to end funding for the project, but the Senate voted 62 to 32 last month to continue it.

Awaiting Congressional action last month, a spokesman for the project contended that a defeat in Congress would not only greatly impede basic scientific research, but would also spell the end for several important programs in science education.

“There are two primary goals established for the S.S.C.,’' said Thomas Gadsden Jr., the director of the supercollider laboratory’s education office in Dallas. “Education is one of those two primary goals.’'

‘Basic, Fundamental Work’

The lab is operated under contract to the Energy Department by the Universities Research Association, a consortium of 79 U.S. and Canadian institutions.

As is the case at many D.O.E. labs, the supercollider supports a number of initiatives designed to give high school students the chance to study alongside working scientists and to upgrade the skills of precollegiate teachers.

Mr. Gadsden, a former high school science supervisor, said that the lab’s more than 20 internship, field-trip, and other educational programs offer students and teachers nationwide a first-hand opportunity to study problems in fields as diverse as physics, library and environmental sciences, and engineering.

A new teacher-internship program, for example, allowed Robert Rowe Jr., a physics and chemistry teacher at Highland Park High School in Dallas, to join a team of theoretical physicists, computer scientists, and electronics engineers to test and develop a calibration scale to measure the light-absorbing characteristics of special optically sensitive tiles that would be used in the supercollider’s sensors.

Mr. Rowe, a 31-year veteran of the classroom who previously worked on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Skylab project, spent eight weeks this summer testing the reflective properties of various tiles and fibers with such sophisticated tools as ultraviolet lasers.

“This is just basic, fundamental work that has to be done in order to pick the best systems initially and [to determine] how these systems will change with time,’' he said.

Mr. Rowe said that much of what he learned during the summer will be directly applicable to his classroom teaching, but he also hopes to impress upon his students his new-found conviction that the project deserves Congressional support.

“We have to talk about the [scientific and technological] spinoffs,’' he added. “But the real reason for studying these things is that we don’t know everything about matter. I would hate to think that our generation would be the one that no longer wanted to go on to answer these questions.’'

An Electronic Curriculum

In addition to its educational-outreach programs, the laboratory also is working with a California-based software developer to create a compact disk-based version of an elementary science curriculum developed by the S.S.C.'s education office.

The pre-K through 5th-grade curriculum, called “Adopt-a-Magnet,’' uses experiments, demonstrations, games, songs, and stories related to the particle accelerator to teach about basic concepts in mathematics, physics, and other sciences.

Under the terms of the agreement, Threshold Communications, of Burbank, Calif., will spend as much as $2 million to create separate compact disk-interactive versions of the curriculum for elementary, junior high, and high school students.

The firm also is working with the laboratory’s education staff to create a CD-I “model schools’’ program for teaching mathematics and science.

The CD-I technology, introduced in the United States last year, holds the promise of allowing standard television sets to be used in the same way that microcomputers are today. The disks can store text, graphics, and still and motion pictures.

Local Districts Concerned

Spokesmen for some school districts, however, are ambivalent about possible adverse effects of the supercollider project. They hope that new technologies that are expected to emerge to support the project will generate as yet unforeseen employment opportunities that will stimulate the local economy and lead to an influx of technically trained workers and their families to the area.

David W. Montgomery, the superintendent of the 5,000-student Waxahachie school district, which is located within the 54-mile supercollider loop, said that several of the district’s students have completed internships at the facility.

But he also noted that the district estimates that it may lose $400,000 in property taxes annually when construction of the federal facility is completed.

Although federal impact aid may compensate for the loss, and the construction of new homes for laboratory employees might benefit the local economy, “impact studies have not shown a strong positive influence,’' Mr. Montgomery said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as Districts in Particle-Smasher’s Tex. Home Warily Eye Debate