by Panos Charitos & Vito Manzari. Published: 19 February 2013

A masterclass for a group of 15 selected Italian high-school students took place from October 15th to 19th. The students attend the 4th year at “Liceo Classico Statale Cagnazzi” in Altamura, a nice and quiet town at 50 km from Bari. The week spent at CERN was part of a three-week long stage, funded by the Ministry of Education, University and Research, with the aim of introducing some selected students to the world of fundamental physics and in particular to nuclear and sub-nuclear research activities. Vito Manzari of INFN Bari, and member of ALICE since the very beginning, was in charge of the organization of the whole stage, which included, in addition to the week at CERN, one week each in two INFN National Laboratories, Laboratori Nazionali Del Gran Sasso (LNGS) and Laboratori Nazionali di Frascati (LNF), respectively. The students were totally unfamiliar with the concepts of fundamental components of matter and their interactions.

“Initially we had many doubts about the work plan of the stage, arising mainly from our almost total ignorance of this subject as the school programme we have been following up to now did not include physics. However, after the first contacts and clarifications by Prof. Manzari, the curiosity and the enthusiasm rapidly grew and exceeded any doubts.”

The activity programme at CERN was conceived as an overview of the life of a high energy physics experiment, from its conception to the publication of results, including construction, data-taking and analysis using ALICE as reference. During the first two weeks of the stage a preliminary series of lectures provided the students with the fundamental concepts in particle physics, particle detectors, accelerators and cosmic rays. The journey through the like of ALICE allowed an insight of probing the microscopic world by means of the giant accelerator and detectors the biggest ever built by men. The students were introduced to the mysteries of the basic building blocks of matter and their interactions, the origin of the universe and the quark-gluon soup and its evolution.

“Since the first lectures we discovered a charming world and we were fascinated by what we learnt step by step, which stimulated our interest. Each day we had the opportunity to attend seminars given by several lecturers and to visit the experimental setups such as those located in the Gran Sasso underground hall. The arguments treated during the courses were so intriguing and exciting that we could not stop discussing them among us and with the organizers of the stage after the scheduled hours and the free time.”

The daily programme was organized in lectures during the morning and hand-on sessions connected to them in the afternoon. The hands-on sessions included the definition of the detector layout and in particular of the innermost tracker using the fast simulation tool adopted for the preliminary performance studies of the ITS upgrade. A taste of the programmable devices and in particular their application to the data acquisition system, of the behaviour in terms of strengths and deformation of ultra-light different carbon fiber structures, and of the effectiveness of removing the heat produced by the detector electronics. They practiced running a small-scale experiment based on a spare module of the SPD to detect cosmic rays and a radiation from a radioactive source. They were organized into a shift crew to take care of the setting up and running of the data acquisition, trigger and detector control systems, as well as the data quality monitoring. They successfully went through a commissioning procedure to guarantee a noiseless running of the detector. And last but not least, the data analysis: by using the event display tool developed by the ALICE outreach group they could perform a counting of the strange particles detected with ALICE in a sample of real p-p and PbPb collisions.

Similarly to two previous weeks, the masterclass programme was enriched with visits to some selected places such as the LHC magnet test area, the computing center, the AMS control center and the ALICE control room and exhibition center.

“This exciting and unusual experience, which began more than 20 days ago in Bari in a meeting room of the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare, developed over three weeks at INFN laboratories of Gran Sasso and Frascati and the last one at CERN, had a great impact on us. We now claim to have some understanding of the basic concepts of the research carried out in the above mentioned laboratories and the role of the experimental and theoretical physicists. We were guided through the scientific method applied to explain simple as well as complex phenomena. This stage has shined a light to an unrivalled world and has played an important role in broadening our horizons in view of the future university path.”