by Virginia Greco. Published: 13 November 2017

The High-School Student Internship Programme (HSSIP) has been launched by CERN in May 2017. Lately, a group of students of French high-schools has had the opportunity to visit CERN – the ALICE experiment among the others -, learn about particle physics and build a detector with their own hands.

The participants in the French High-School Student Internship Programme of CERN. [Credit: CERN]

Between October 22 and November 3, CERN hosted the first edition of the French High-School Student Internship Programme (HSSIP), which saw the participation of 24 pupils coming from different French high schools located in France and Africa and aged 16-18. Along two intense weeks, they had the opportunity to learn about particle physics and the research done at CERN, thanks to a series of lectures, visits and workshops. Their packed schedule foresaw for the mornings a series of seminars - covering the basics of particle physics, antimatter, accelerator and beam technology, computing and the grid - and visits to various experimental installations of CERN. In the afternoons, divided in teams of 2 to 4 students, they took part in hands-on workshops and constructed their own detector.

 A group of four students worked on a hands-on project within our experiment. Under the guidance of Despina Hatzifotiadou, they learnt how particles produced in collisions are detected and identified by the ALICE detectors and how these signals are translated into data that physicists can then analyse with the help of dedicated software. They could also live the experience of building a muon detector, for the EEE outreach and research project.

At the end of the two-week internship, each group had to present a poster illustrating the project they had developed, and make a short presentation. This is a useful exercise, which – actually - mimics what researchers really do in their work.

Maxime, who is at his last year in a high-school of Paris, explains that he has really appreciated the practical part of the experience and has been captivated by the computer science involved in particle physics experiments. “It was very interesting to understand how the impact of a particle on a detector is translated into a signal and then a piece of data in the computer,” he explains.

Different is the vision of Hawa, who comes from Djibuti, a small country in the east coast of Africa. She is less enthusiastic about these hands-on activities: “I was expecting the workshops to be more about calculations, not about building a detector. I have discovered this side of physics that I didn’t know and I realized that I don’t like it, because it is too repetitive.

I agree with Hawa,” intervenes Emilie, the youngest of the group, who comes from Alsace. “It was interesting for two weeks, but I wouldn’t do it all my life.

I think it was very interesting to see all the steps of particle detection in an experiment,” comments Laura, who comes from a Lyceé in the Bretagne region. “It is true that we were expecting something different and – actually - more complicated, like theoretical physics and calculations, while instead we have mainly worked with physicists in the laboratory and we have done a lot of manual activities. But I liked it anyway.”

(From the left) Emilie, Laura, Hawa and Maxime during the final presentation of their project at CERN.

The aspect of this experience that they enjoyed most was probably the human one: not only did they have the opportunity to make new friends, but also to come in contact with real scientists and with people from so many parts of the world. “It has been great walking into the cafeteria and listening to people speaking many different languages. There is such a great mix of cultures at CERN,” Maxime comments.

It was the first time that they were offered the possibility to make this kind of experience. They applied to the French HSSIP programme and those who were selected sacrificed two weeks of school holidays to be able to take part in it. “It was worth the effort. I think it was useful to get an idea of what physicists do,” Laura says.

If the hands-on activities of the programme are designed to make the students learn while doing, the lectures are meant to give them a general overview of modern physics, skimming through topics that are rarely included in the high-school programmes. “The lecturers tried to be as clear as possible and invited us to ask questions at any time,” explains Laura, “I liked in particular discovering more about particle physics.”

I enjoyed a lot the class about computing,” says Maxime. “I preferred the theoretical lessons,” says Hawa, “the one on antimatter was particularly interesting.

They are not very easy subjects, of course, so some attention and effort is required. “I think we were able to follow and understand most of the topics of the lectures,” comments Emilie “but of course some concepts were a bit more complex.”

Maxime thinks that he will choose a career in technology (“something involving informatics and electronics”), while Laura, Hawa and Emilie most likely will study physics.

All of them had already an interest in pursuing scientific studies at the University, which is why they chose to apply to the HSSIP programme; this experience allowed them to touch with their hands the world of particle physics research and helped them make up their mind. Such an enriching experience is very valuable, both from the pedagogical and the human point of view.

The High-School Students Internship Programme (HSSIP) has been developed by the Teacher and Student Programmes section of the CERN Education, Communication and Outreach (ECO) group, with the aim of engaging young students with scientific research and innovation.

The HSSIP was launched in May 2017 and started with the participation of a group of Hungarian students. Since then, pupils from other CERN Member States (Bulgaria, Norway, Portugal and France) have been introduced to CERN and the programme is having a great success.