by Virginia Greco. Published: 12 April 2017

During the last weeks many students from Italian high schools landed at CERN to build their own muon detectors, large area Multigap Resistive Plate Chambers, for the Extreme Energy Events (EEE) project.

During long technical stops of LHC a bustle of activities characterize life at point 2, not only because many technical interventions take place, but also because it is the best moment for visitors to have a tour of the experiment, since access to the underground cavern is allowed.

A few weeks ago ALICE received the visit of an enthusiastic group of students from the high school “Liceo Scientifico Ettore Majorana” of Lampedusa, Italy, accompanied by their physics professor and school director. The trip to ALICE was an interruption in the busy schedule of their week at CERN, where they came to build “their own” detector for cosmic rays.

Students from "Liceo Ettore Majorana" of Lampedusa, Italy, visiting the ALICE experiment facility.

They are indeed one of few high schools in Italy involved in a successful research and educational project run by Centro Fermi in Rome, together with the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN) and the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR); CERN is also a partner.

The Extreme Energy Events (EEE) experiment - this is the project’s name – is dedicated to the study of extended air showers generated from energetic primary cosmic rays and involves high school teachers and students, who are thus initiated to particle and cosmic ray physics and experimental research.

An array of telescopes built by students, hosted in school buildings and run by them is used to detect and study energetic cosmic rays. Practically, each school participating in the project assembles a telescope – both the detector and the data acquisition electronics – under the guidance of CERN and INFN researchers, and installs it in their school building. The telescope, which is able to detect muons from showers produced by cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere, is based on large area Multigap Resistive Plate Chambers (MRPCs), of the same type as the detectors used for particle identification in the ALICE Time of Flight (TOF) system.  These chambers are made of simple materials – glass plates separated by fishing line spacers – but have high performance: excellent efficiency and time resolution.

The telescopes built by different schools, spread all over the Italian territory, form an array of detectors put in coincidence thanks to a GPS system. When an energetic shower of particles hits the Earth, telescopes installed kilometres apart are able to detect muons originating from the same phenomenon and the data can be combined for a precise description and study of the event.

Students from "Liceo Ettore Majorana" of Lampedusa, Italy, building a muon detector for the EEE experiment [Photo credits: Sophia Elizabeth Bennett].

The core goal of the EEE project is to stimulate the interest of the young pupils, who can experience real work in a physics experiment, breathe the air of a research laboratory, learn about physics and be inspired towards a career in science.

At the moment fifty telescopes are operative and take data, while new schools are applying to take part in this project. In the last weeks, pupils and teachers from other Italian high schools (from Voghera, Recco, Carcare and Siena) have come to CERN to build their muon detectors and more groups are scheduled to come in April and May.

The experience has been highly appreciated by the students who have had this unique opportunity. “This week spent at CERN has been great, full of emotions,” comments Giacomo Tuccio, one of the pupils from Lampedusa, “we have received a training directly in the field, we have learnt about physics and technologies, and we were given input to push further the boundaries of our knowledge and aim at new goals”.

“I think I have never lived a similar experience,” adds Ester Pucillo, another student from Lampedusa, “we live in a small island so we don’t have many possibilities to meet different people and exchange experiences. Here at CERN differences of origins and native language do not limit communication and exchange of knowledge, everyone is here for a common purpose and that is the only thing that really matters. I find it also amazing to be surrounded by so much culture…”

The teachers as well consider this experience very formative, enriching and inspiring, both for the students and for themselves. “I fell in love with CERN and this world of real research the first time I came to CERN in 2015 with the Italian Teacher Programme,” comments Paola Dragonetti, teacher of Maths at the Liceo Ettore Majorana of Lampedusa. “When I discovered the EEE project, I immediately thought of my students and this fantastic opportunity to make them participate in an international physics experiment. The dream became reality and living it was sensational!”

Students and teacher from "Liceo Ettore Majorana" of Lampedusa, Italy [Photo credits: Sophia Elizabeth Bennett].