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Students find cosmic rays in DC museum

How cosmic rays collide with the Earth's atmosphere. Courtesy CERN.

How cosmic rays collide with the Earth's atmosphere. Courtesy CERN.

If you happen to be in the Washington, DC, area today, stop in at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum to see cosmic rays in action in honor of National Lab Day.

Four teams of high school students and their teachers will display classroom cosmic ray detectors set up throughout the museum’s Milestones of Flight Gallery. The detectors will  record the particle remnants of the sun’s energy that collide with the Earth’s atmosphere and send secondary particle showers raining down through the roof. In fact, about a hundred of these secondary particles will pass through the bodies of museum visitors every second.

Visitors will get to learn about these cosmic rays, detectors, and the particle physics behind them from the students and a team of physicists from Fermilab and the QuarkNet education outreach program based at the Illinois laboratory.

“We wouldn’t teach football from a textbook,” says John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor in a press release announcing National Lab Day. “It is even more important that America’s youth have the opportunity to learn math and science by doing. The President and I strongly support efforts to raise the level of project-based learning, to help cultivate the next generation of doers and makers.”

National Lab Day, being celebrated in many places this week, focuses on the need to improve science, technology, engineering, and math skills in middle and high school students as well as connect students with professionals in those fields.

QuarkNet’s unique ability to partner students and teachers with ongoing research at national laboratories provides just that type of real-world experience that developers of National Lab Day say is needed to reinvigorate science education and foster future increased US competitiveness.

The particle collision data collected  in the Smithsonian by the teens from Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, and Virginia will complement data from 311 other cosmic ray detectors operated by high school students across the country. QuarkNet staff design and produce the sophisticated detectors, which students assemble and operate themselves.

The simultaneous two-days of data taking, May 4 and 5, will supplement the 2700 days of data already available for study and query in the public  Cosmic Ray e-Lab operated by QuarkNet.

Teachers can tap into the e-Lab to formulate individualized lessons plans to teach about particle physics and working in national and international collaborations. More than 1200 teachers have taken advantage of the QuarkNet program since 1999.

“It’s their data. It is not being handed to them by anyone, “ says Robert Peterson, QuarkNet education program leader. “They go out and do the experiments.”

The size of the Smithsonian gallery will enable students to locate detectors 100 feet apart from one another, creating a wide enough umbrella to look for cosmic ray showers and compare that analysis to the real-world research on cosmic rays being done by the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina.

“Our children deserve a world class science and math education that includes exciting, hands-on lab experiences,” says Jack Hidary, chairman of National Lab Day. “Whether you are a Nobel-prize winning scientist, a Mythbusters fan, a tinkerer, or a parent, you can help bring students the enjoyment of learning through real challenges.”