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Students on shift at the LHC

Students on shift in the ATLAS control room during European Researchers' Night.

Students on shift in the ATLAS control room during European Researchers' Night. © CERN/Claudia Marcelloni

The average age of operators in CERN's control rooms dropped dramatically last Friday, September 24, as 130 students  between the ages of 12 and 19 joined the teams on shift as part of European Researchers’ Night. The event was a unique occasion for students from the local French and Swiss schools to sit right next to the scientists who control the LHC and its detectors and get hands-on particle physics experience.

CERN’s accelerator control room—known as the CERN Control Centre, or CCC—and the control rooms for the ALICE, ATLAS, CMS, LHCb and TOTEM experiments welcomed the young shifters in small groups for a couple of hours at a time. The heavy rain and sudden onset of chilly autumn weather did not dampen the enthusiasm of the volunteers and of the visitors. “After all,” mused Catherine Brandt, one of the event organizers, referring to the typically unstable Geneva weather, “it would not have been a CERN event without the rain!”

Activities varied among the six sites, but in all control rooms students spent time with the operators in charge of the different tasks. French- and English-speaking physicists volunteered to help cross the language barrier when needed, and bits of other languages were spoken as well. The "researchers for a night" seemed to enjoy CERN’s melting pot at least as much as the physics and technical discussions.

"All students appreciated interacting with physicists, having things explained to them almost individually and feeling part of the actual running of the experiments," said ALICE's Despina Chatzifotiadou.

The LHC sites also proposed a variety of educational activities to complete the students’ experience. For the eldest, ALICE, ATLAS and LHCb concocted a program focused on hadron collider physics. The students studied real and simulated event displays of different physics processes, culminating in the "discovery" of a the Higgs boson.

One group of student researchers in the CMS control room.

One group of student researchers in the CMS control room. © CERN/Michael Hoch

As an alternative for younger children, ALICE installed the cosmophone, a device that detects cosmic rays and produces different combinations of light and sounds depending on the rays' characteristics. The emphasis for the youngest students at CMS was understanding in detail what happens in the control room and the role of the various types of shifters. Kids had the choice of making a poster or posting their thoughts on a dedicated Facebook page. During their time in the control room, they were handed video and photo cameras and could upload the results to the Web or print their pictures right on the spot for the posters. To the great delight of the CMS volunteers, the response was enthusiastic and most of the students chose to complete both activities. The posters are now on display in CERN's Building 40.

To add to the thrill, all control rooms were also part of the night's webcast show jointly organized by CERN, the Italian science association Frascati Scienza and the Erasmus Medical Centre in The Netherlands.

At the end of the evening, everyone left smiling; not only the kids with their diplomas of “LHC operator for one night” but also the volunteers and scientists involved, who conveyed all of the enthusiasm that they put into their daily work. As participant Daniel Malyuta wrote in his poster, “The 27-km LHC is complex, made of steel and plastic, and yet those at CMS and other sites fill it with personality."

As a follow-up of to the Researchers' Night, all students were invited to write and submit an article to recount their experience. The best work will be published in an upcoming issue of the CERN Bulletin.