by Kevin Coulombe. Published: 28 March 2014

There are many fascinating and wondrous experiments and technology at CERN, some of which have literally redefined or changed our ways of viewing our universe and the laws that govern it. CERN has quickly become synonymous with prestige, power, ingenuity, intellect, and mystery, but many of our younger students and children are only familiar with it through what they see on television, whether through some scientific documentary or a comedy such as the Big Bang Theory. I am currently a high school teacher, and I have spent two summers working directly with the ALICE team under Dr. Jennifer Klay, through Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, USA. In my time at ALICE I became certified as an EmCAL and DQM expert, caused a beam dump, overseen small group projects, and have come to learn some of the more fascinating intricacies of our project. I am always excited to bring new information back to my students, but I am often disappointed at how little I can share with them because many of the US education standards do not encompass particle physics, high energy physics, or really anything beyond classical mechanics. This means that most students do not have the background necessary to understand what is actually happening at CERN. Because of this, I was determined to invent an outreach program that would allow my students an opportunity to pursue physics at a higher level, and to allow them to investigate many of the interesting science topics all students seem to always have questions about. What is anti matter, how are black holes formed, what is the Higgs...etc? The innate curiosity we posses drives us to new discoveries, and it was my aim to nurture and encourage my students to dive straight into some of their most perplexing questions by undertaking a yearlong research project.

At the beginning of this school year I started an LHC outreach programme available for high school students in the US. In this program students choose one topic of interest being investigated at CERN, or one that is linked to other phenomena being investigated and they spend 6-8 months conducting research on their topic. During this time, we have scheduled several Skype conferences with current scientists; we will participate in a pre-filmed and live virtual tour of ALICE, and participate in the Strange Particle Analysis master class. All of these ventures are to help the students prepare for their final challenge, a Poster Conference held at Cal Poly in which all of the students will present their research to the College of Science and Mathematics, along with the general Cal Poly public. The students will be collided with high expectations, new scientific materials, and the creative freedom born from authentic scientific inquiry; hence, the programs name: The LHC, The Large High school Collider.

Kevin Coulombe preparing for the ALICE experiment. At the beginning of this year he started an LHC outreach programme for high school students in the US.

One of the program’s main goals is simply outreach. As current scientists, we have an obligatory duty to excite and interest our youth in hopes that we can ignite a spark inside them that makes them want to follow the path of a scientist. Many students view science, and specifically physics, as a scary and intimidating subject. If we can find constructive and supportive avenues to allow students to authentically pursue a challenging physics topic, then we can show them that there is nothing to be afraid of and potentially expand their views on physics and its place in their hearts. Short of what is required in public education in the US, many under privileged (socio-economically and academically) students and even average students will never get an opportunity to independently pursue science. By offering a program like this, we may be able to hook a few “non-stereotypical” students while they are still deciding what they want to do, and open their minds to enrolling in a few extra science classes while they are in college. While science can be a challenging subject, it can also be one of the most rewarding because of how intertwined it is with being human. We learn best through the scientific method, and every day growing up we conduct experiments to determine what our favorite flavor of ice cream is, what we can and cannot touch for fear of injury, and how to grow as intellectuals capable of understanding the world around us. Humans are gifted with the ability to pursue and understand science, and it should be celebrated, not feared. If this program changes at least one student’s outlook on science and physics specifically, then it will be a success!

Along with outreach, this program was also designed to help college bound students begin their transition to independence and establish a strong work ethic. For many students there is a vastly large chasm between the expectations needed to exit high school, and a professor’s expectations while in college. This is actually one of many reasons that students tend to drop out before finishing college. They aren’t used to the independence and rigor, and the learning curve is sometimes too steep for an unsuspecting student to handle. Whether the students in the program strive to become the next Einstein or Hawking, or whether they are just fascinated by the science, they gain an understanding of what it takes to produce college worthy work and with minimal aid while creating their research posters. This is part of the reason why the program lasts the entire school year. It allows me to slowly create more and more deadlines, and transition the responsibility for their education from teacher to student. When the program first opened we had 79 interested students all crammed into a classroom ready and curious, but as of today, only 13 brave souls remain. This is the first year of the program and I hope to fine tune it so that more students remain active, but for right now I know that these 13 students will leave with a thorough understanding of what it means to work hard and produce high quality work.

There is always more that we can do to help create an intelligent and productive society, but in my opinion, the most essential task is to prepare the next generation to push their current understandings more than we did, to inspire the youth to surpass their mentors and to never stop growing. I hope to do this with my LHC program, and I am quite excited to see where it will go in the future! While this program is still quite new and rather small, it provides students with an opportunity to become part of a significantly larger and more gratifying goal, world-wide scientific investigation. The corner stone to progress.

About the author: Kevin Coulombe is a teacher of Astronomy & Physics in Menlo Atherton High School at Menlo Park, California, USA