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Local

Fermilab physicists make science real for students

Students at J.B. Nelson get hands-on lesson

BATAVIA – Some people might think that Fermilab physicists are unapproachable eggheads, probing the deepest mysteries of science from their secluded laboratories without personal lives or connections to the rest of humanity.

“Scientists are no smarter than anyone else,” Fermilab physicist Brendan Casey said. “There’s a misconception that you have to be a genius. We just like science, a lot.”

Fermilab physicists are real people and they send their children to the local public schools just like their neighbors do.

Several scientists at the nationally renowned particle accelerator laboratory have children who attend Batavia’s J.B. Nelson School.

They visited the school recently to teach their own sons and daughters, along with their classmates, about the science that shapes the universe.

Using the school’s Learning Resource Center, the scientists set up three learning stations featuring action-filled demonstrations.

Over the course of an entire school day, every first through fifth grade class visited the center to be enlightened.

Principal Nicole Prentiss said the initiative is part of an effort to build partnerships with parents.

“We want to have students see being a scientist as a viable career path,” Prentiss said.

The physicists certainly had that same goal in mind as they conducted simple experiments showing the students how they investigate the properties of subatomic particles.

Neutrino Division scientists Aria Soha and Peter Shanahan were using a tank of water to demonstrate the density of different elements as they described the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment that is now under construction and will take many years to complete.

“Maybe you’ll be there to help take the data with us at Fermilab,” Soha told the students.

Soha’s first grade son, Luke, and Shanahan’s twin second grade sons, Isaac and Elliott, were among the spectators.

At the station focusing on Fermilab’s mammoth Collider Detector, Soha’s husband, Aron, was one of three scientists explaining the laboratory’s most basic mission.

The students were thrilled when physicist John Kuharik used what was essentially a sophisticated pinball machine to accelerate objects and create collisions, demonstrating how scientists produce subatomic particles.

Kuharik’s children attending the school are second-grader Eloise and fifth-grader Abigail.

Margurite Tonjes, a University of Illinois-Chicago employee who is assigned to Fermilab as a computer technical support worker, was able to show the students the immensity of the Collider Detector.

Next to a scale model of the detector facility, Tonjes stacked five identical photos of J.B. Nelson School, one atop the other.

The third station was handled solo by Casey, whose children at the school are fifth-grader Dylan and third-grader Coa.

Using spinning tops, Casey showed the students how scientists are able to learn about the things they cannot see by observing how other objects behave.

“I just watch and see what happens,” Casey told the students.

Casey placed the spinning tops in three different bins, one wide open, another studded with plastic obstacles and another filled with sand. He gave the students the chance to put the tops in motion and see for themselves.

The entire day’s programming was something of an experiment. The results were measurable.

Before the school’s classes took turns visiting with the scientists, every student took the same test on elementary physics concepts.

After the demonstrations, Prentiss said, the students took the same test again and their scores were dramatically higher.

Rebecca Thompson from Fermilab’s Office of Education and Public Outreach was pleased not only with the learning that was taking place but also with the connection being forged between the school and the laboratory.

“We’re really excited about this,” Thompson said. “We’re trying to be good community members.”

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