seal  Purdue News

July 16, 2003

Purdue's 'QuarkNet' center to train high school physics teachers

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Physicists at Purdue University are working with Indiana high school teachers in a new center that is part of a nationwide system dedicated to making physics education more exciting for students.

Daniela Bortoletto, a professor of physics at Purdue, is leading the team of researchers in the new QuarkNet center, one of three such Indiana centers and one of 49 around the nation.

Two physics teachers, Cherie Lehman from West Lafayette Junior/Senior High School and Gregg Hoover from Benton Central High School are the first teachers participating in the program.

"The final intent of QuarkNet is actually to change the way physics is taught and to make high school physics more exciting by creating lessons that incorporate research in high-energy particle physics being done at the world's leading laboratories," Bortoletto said.

QuarkNet, which began in 1998, focuses on research at facilities such as the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, known as Fermilab, near Chicago, and at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, known as CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland. Scientists at these labs are running experiments ultimately aimed at understanding the fundamentals of matter and energy.

"We will make physics more interesting for the students and hopefully get them more engaged in science," said Bortoletto, who was a member of the Fermilab research team that in 1994 discovered a particle called the top quark, one of the last fundamental building blocks of matter to be confirmed by science.

In QuarkNet, university physicists act as mentors to the high school teachers. QuarkNet, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, ultimately will include about 60 centers nationwide.

Lehman and Hoover will act as lead teachers and will train 10 other high school teachers next summer. They are learning about Purdue's involvement in work to discover a fundamental subatomic particle called the Higgs boson. Scientists have been searching for the Higgs particle since it was first proposed in the 1960s by Peter Higgs, a physicist from Edinburgh University, to explain why matter has mass.

In the search for new subatomic particles, accelerators at Fermilab and CERN hurl subatomic particles at nearly the speed of light until they collide, creating many other particles whose presence is recorded by a series of detectors near the point of collision.

Researchers believe the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, expected to be operational in 2007, will be powerful enough to detect the Higgs particle. If the theoretical particle is not discovered, however, physicists will have to revise their "standard model," a widely accepted theory about the nature of matter and energy.

Disproving the existence of the Higgs particle might be more exciting than proving its existence because such a development would lead to new theories that envision higher dimensions of space-time.

Bortoletto's research team is creating a key detector for the CERN experiment to discover the Higgs particle.

During their eight-week QuarkNet training, Lehman and Hoover are learning about the detector while working with Bortoletto, research engineer Kirk Arndt, postdoctoral fellows and students. They also recently completed a one-week particle physics "boot camp" at Fermilab and will incorporate what they have learned in future lessons.

"They are receiving the eight weeks of intense research training and they will disseminate what they've learned to 10 high school teachers in our geographical area during a three-week workshop next summer," Bortoletto said.

The two other QuarkNet centers in Indiana are at Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame.

Lehman is learning about the software being used to test the silicon chips in the CERN detector.

"This work has given me experience that will add a new flavor to the computer data acquisition and analysis, which is already an essential component of my physics classes," Lehman said.

Hoover is involved in developing a laser station that is needed to test the new detector.

"We do a lot of research-oriented design projects in the classroom, and my work here will be used to shape future high school lessons," he said.

Writer: Emil Venere, (765) 494-4709,

Sources: Daniela Bortoletto, (765) 494-5197,

Gregg Hoover, (574) 826-2065,

Cherie Lehman,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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