Science

Astrophysics Brings Together Calif. Schools and Scientists

By Michelle Galley — March 10, 2004 4 min read
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Cosmic rays are blasting through space faster than the speed of light, hitting Earth’s atmosphere and breaking into pieces as they fall to the ground.

Not much is known about these supercharged, superfast particles from outer space. But now, with the help of teachers and students from more than 50 middle and high schools in the Los Angeles area, scientists in California are hoping to learn more about the astronomical phenomenon.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, have installed two cosmic-ray detectors at each school that has joined in the new research project. Each detector collects data on the exact time and volume of the showers and transmits the information back to the researchers.

Such an experiment typically would be conducted in the middle of the desert, where the equipment would be scattered across several miles and have less chance of being damaged.

In fact, the desert was the first place Robert McKeown, a physics professor at Cal Tech, thought to put his cosmic-ray experiment.

Then he came across another project that partnered schools with researchers, and the idea hit him: Why not use schools for the cosmic-ray project?

Schools provide the exact conditions the study requires: a place for the detectors to do their work without being disturbed, a computer that can stay dry and plugged in, and easy access for the researchers to perform maintenance and upgrades.

Now, the relationship forged between researchers and teachers at the schools in the study provides unusual opportunities for everyone involved.

“We can engage a large number of teachers and students in this project in a novel way,” Mr. McKeown said.

Being part of the study costs the schools no more than the electricity it takes to power one computer. On the plus side, moreover, students are introduced to cutting-edge concepts in astrophysics and take part in real-life scientific research.

“It’s real science, and we have a hand in it,” said Scott Randles, a science teacher here at the 1,800-student Temple City High School.

Currently, 53 middle and high schools take part in what is called the California High School Cosmic Ray Observatory, or CHICOS. Mr. McKeown expects that 90 schools eventually will be part of the program.

Two ‘Schmoos’

Nicknamed “schmoos” after a character in the “L’il Abner” comic strip, the cosmic-ray detectors look like kindergartner-sized, upside-down funnels with elongated necks. Each school has two fiberglass detectors that are usually painted white and located on a roof above a science lab.

One middle school, however, was so excited about the project that educators and students put their schmoos right outside the school office, painted them the school colors, and planted a flower bed around them, according to Theresa W. Lynn, the CHICOS project coordinator at Cal Tech.

Cosmic rays produce showers of hypercharged, but harmless, particles all over the planet. The detectors are designed to gather information on the time and volume of the showers that occur around the Los Angeles area.

Once the detectors pick up the energy from the cosmic rays, they send the data to a converter box that, in turn, ships the data to a computer in a school’s computer room or science laboratory. Those computers then channel the information to the researchers at Cal Tech.

By studying how the rays hit the detectors, researchers hope to find out more about their origins. “Looking at these cosmic rays is another way of looking at the universe and understanding what happens in galaxies,” Mr. McKeown explained.

Being part of the project has taught Temple City High’s Mr. Randles about the types of energy emitted from outer space and how much information scientists are able to gather from studying different particles.

“Before this, I didn’t know anything about cosmic rays,” he said. As a result of the informal professional development he has acquired through the project, Mr. Randles now spends a week covering cosmic rays in his Integrated Sciences classes, a two-year course that combines biology, chemistry, and physics. Having the equipment at the school makes the lesson more meaningful for his students, he said.

Summer School

Mr. Randles and two of his students spent a week at Cal Tech last summer to learn more about the program, as did teachers and students from seven of the other participating schools. The three from Temple City High built electronic-converter boxes that send information from the detector to computers, and they attended workshops held by the researchers.

The hands- on experience of soldering wires together helped Mimi An better understand previous lessons she had learned about electricity, she said.

“Doing this project made me like science more,” said the 18-year-old senior, who describes herself as “not a science person.”

Hands-on science in California’s lower grades—kindergarten through 8th—would be cut back under a proposal before the state board of education. (“Calif. Mulls Limiting Hands-On Science Lessons,” Feb. 25, 2004.)

Ms. An and classmate Brian Dumbacher were so enthusiastic about participating in the program that they were helping calibrate the software for the detector on their first day on the university campus.

“It was way over my head, so [the pair] sent me out to paint the numbers on the schmoo,” Mr. Randles said.

CHICOS is the largest cosmic-ray research project in the Northern Hemisphere, and one of only two in the world. Students who engage in the project are at the frontier of astrophysics research, Mr. McKeown said.

“These are the highest-energy particles, and they are coming from outer space,” he said. “What could be cooler than that?”

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