Former biology teacher Felicia Svoboda shows Fermilab visitors the ins and outs of doing science.
“Everyone hold up your thumb,” says Felicia Svoboda to a group of high school students, lifting her hand and watching them follow suit. “Ten trillion neutrinos just passed through your thumb. Did you feel it?” Some of the students shake their heads or raise their eyebrows curiously.
Svoboda’s job as a Fermilab docent is to get tour groups curious about particle physics. On this day, she leads a group of students from Illinois’ Rochelle Township High School around displays on the 15th floor of Fermilab’s iconic main building, Wilson Hall.
In addition to serving as a “face of Fermilab,” Svoboda also tries to communicate the wonder of the research done at the laboratory and the engineering required to accomplish it.
Svoboda and the laboratory’s 24 other docents often take student groups, in particular, to Fermilab’s machine shop to show that running a physics lab takes more than just physicists.
“Maybe some students aren’t future physicists but will become engineers, machinists or technicians,” says Fermilab docent manager Sue Sheehan. “We try to appeal to the interest of as many students as possible.”
Physics teacher Paul Cooney has brought his students from Rochelle Township to the lab for the past three years. He uses the tours as part of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics career lessons he teaches.
“I want the students to see people whose job it is to ask questions,” he says. “Scientists are always looking for more instead of looking for a place to stop.”
It’s not just students the docents are trying to reach. They welcome visitors of all ages and levels of knowledge to the laboratory to learn about particle physics and the daily on-the-job activities of Fermilab employees.
“Docents need to have as much background knowledge [on particle physics] as possible,” Sheehan says. “They need to make sure the information is presented at a level that the audience can understand.”
Svoboda often keeps her audience engaged by showing them real pieces of Fermilab machinery.
“Take a close look at this exhibit,” Svoboda tells her tour group, gesturing toward a foot-wide copper cylinder containing a bundle of more than 2000 niobium-titanium alloy filaments.
“It has a destiny,” she says.
Svoboda pulls three wires from her pocket. The wires, now as thin as yarn, were once the same as the foot-thick cylinders on display, she says. They were rolled and stretched to their new shape to fit into superconducting magnets, she says. Some students gasp at the transformation.
Svoboda, a retired high school biology teacher, knew little about particle physics before she decided 10 years ago to be a docent. Previous visits to the lab during her career as a teacher had piqued her interest in particle physics, she says.
“I didn’t explore physics much in high school and college, so it was a learning experience for me,” Svoboda says. “But while training to be a docent, I found out that particle physics is exciting and appealing to me.”
Svoboda’s biology background came into play during her training. In addition to being the only dedicated particle physics national laboratory in the United States, Fermilab also boasts one of the oldest and largest areas of restored, tallgrass prairie in the state of Illinois.
Before giving tours, the docents—who may be former teachers, scientists or engineers—spend weeks learning about particle physics, the lab’s role in research and engineering, and the lab’s environment. They shadow experienced docents and read manuals of information.
“Being a docent requires a diverse knowledge base,” Sheehan says.
Docents, like scientists, need a real thirst for knowledge to make it, she says. Great docents, like great scientists, can pass that enthusiasm on.