“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.”