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The fascinating Physics of CERN

More than squiggly lines

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With its television footage of rocket launches and moon walks, the exploration of our universe never fails to capture the imagination. But the study of particle physics, with its messy-looking Feynman diagrams, squiggly lines and complex equations, doesn’t quite have the same visual appeal. Throw in quirky names like ‘quarks’, ‘fermions and ‘dark energy’, and it’s hardly surprising that Physics can leave some students baffled. 

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) is determined to change this. So in July 2017, as part of my Wenona Fellowship, I set off for Geneva, Switzerland to participate in CERN’s International High School Teacher (HST) program.

The three-week HST program aims to transform the way we teach Physics. It not only supports teachers’ professional development in the field of particle physics, but also promotes its teaching in high schools. The fact that CERN’s program attracts Physics teachers from all over the world - I attended the program along with 42 fellow teachers from 34 different countries - leads to an exchange of knowledge and experience that transcends international boundaries. This, combined with hands-on workshops, lively discussions and Q&A sessions led by world-renowned theoretical and experimental physicists, helps to promote the popularisation of Physics within the classroom and beyond. 

CERN first piqued public interest in the early 1990s, when it was heralded as the birthplace of the World Wide Web. But it wasn’t until Tom Hanks reprised his role as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon in the Hollywood adaptation of the Dan Brown novel Angels and Demons that CERN first attracted worldwide attention. For some, CERN remains fixed as the film’s locus of conspiracy; a place where scientists toil in secret laboratories deep beneath the Earth’s surface, amassing anti-matter to destroy our planet. 

For the scientifically literate though, CERN is perhaps most famous for its discovery of the elusive Higgs Boson in 2012. The Nobel Prize-winning discovery was named after British physicist, Prof Peter Higgs, who predicted its existence in 1964. The so-called ‘God particle’ permeates all of space-time and explains why other particles have mass and why everything around us isn’t radioactive! With more than 15,000 people based here, CERN is more like a small city. It has 700 buildings, including banks, restaurants, museums and even its own fire brigade! The CERN hotel, where I stayed, has more beds than any other hotel in Geneva. Each year, more than 100,000 visitors walk through CERN’s gates, united by the age-old quest to understand what the universe is made of and how it works.

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The largest machine on earth 
For me, one of the most exciting aspects of the HST program was visiting the various test facilities and control centres that surround CERN. This included trips to the aptly named Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.

Everything about the LHC sounds large, but even I wasn’t expecting the sheer scale of the $9 billion LHC complex. Buried deep below the French/Swiss border, this colossal underground laboratory consists of a 27-kilometre circular racetrack of superconducting magnets. Here protons are made to whiz around in opposite directions at close to the speed of light until they crash together, producing tiny fireballs of primordial energy. By attempting to recreate the conditions following the ‘Big Bang’ event that gave birth to the Universe millions of years ago, physicists gain insights into the fundamental laws of nature.

Advancing human health
The highlight of the HST program was the opportunity to develop new classroom resources. Working in collaboration with five other teachers, my study group focused on an area that typically fascinates students: the medical application of particle physics. 

Many students are surprised to discover that the same particle physics technology that is used to understand the Universe has also played a vital role in advancing human health and medicine, particularly in medical imaging and more recently, in the treatment of cancer. 

CERN’s accelerators and detectors have been instrumental in helping to better diagnose disease, shrink tumours and sterilise medical equipment. One such medical innovation achieved by CERN and its collaborators is the development of Hadron Therapy, which uses targeted beams of high-energy particles to kill tumour cells. My study group created a series of teaching resources about the way Hadron Therapy works and our final presentation was live-streamed to everyone at CERN!

Best Practice in STEM 

Prior to starting the HST program, I travelled to Finland where I visited the Teacher Training School at the LUMA Centre at the University of Helsinki. LUMA supports the sustained professional development, capacity and engagement of teachers and encourages them to embrace research-based learning. It also aims to empower students through skill development and relevant real world applications of STEM.

LUMA is committed to international best practice in STEM education and has fostered an inclusive culture across the whole STEM ecosystem in Finland, from peak organisations, industry, and the education sector. It was heartening to see therefore, that many of its guiding principles are reflected in the burgeoning STEM culture at Wenona.

I also attended the Science on Stage festival in Debrecen, Hungary, a biennial European educational fair, where the theme this year was “Inventing the Future of Science Education”. Through a series of workshops and performances, more than 450 STEM teachers from 30 European countries exchanged ideas and creative teaching concepts. 

The overriding message was clear: schools must embrace the acceleration of technological progress to prepare students to thrive in a rapidly changing world. 

My trip ended with an eye-opening visit to the Future Classroom Lab (FCL) in Brussels, an inspirational learning environment that challenged me to think differently about the role of pedagogy, technology and design in the classroom.

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Jacky Pei
Science and Mathematics Teacher