A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication
S2B: Fermilab Proton Run
Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago

Precocious protons


A brainy playground springs up at Fermilab, offering hands-on education experiences for kids.

Ask a bunch of 10-year-olds this question: Would you rather hear about the journey of a proton through Fermilab’s accelerators, or would you rather be a proton and take that journey yourself?

And now, go visit an ear doctor, since the deafening sound of kids shouting out the second option has no doubt caused some damage. It’s no secret that hands-on education experiences are more fun for kids—it feels like recess, and yet learning is happening.

That’s the guiding principle behind the Physics Playground, now under construction at Fermilab’s Lederman Science Center. The first attraction to be built is a running track that allows children to pretend to be protons, antiprotons or muons, as they run along trails in the shape of the lab’s iconic accelerator complex.

The track mirrors the route a particle takes as it travels through the linac, Fermilab’s initial accelerator, then around the booster and the main injector, where the particle ramps up to nearly the speed of light. The path then leads to a replica of the Tevatron ring, where kids can pretend to be protons or antiprotons, running around the track in opposite directions depending on their choice.

The Proton Run is the brainchild of a veteran educator who knows the value of mixing fun with learning: Marge Bardeen, head of Fermilab’s Office of Education.

To construct the run, Bardeen partnered with Susan Dahl, who coordinates the Teacher Resource Center at the Lederman Center. Dahl obtained funding for the Proton Run in an unusual way: She secured a gambling tax grant from Kane County, Illinois, that covered about half the cost.

She and other members of the non-profit organization Fermilab Friends for Science Education will now help arrange funds to build the rest of the playground, which may also include an energy-wave simulator and a swing set that mimics the behavior of neutrinos.

The Proton Run will open to the public this spring.