To Get Kids Interested in Science, We Have to Let Them Do Science

In 10 years the U.S. will turn on a brand-new particle accelerator that stands to unlock new secrets about the fundamental structure of matter. This machine, called the Electron-Ion Collider (EIC), will be built at the Brookhaven National Laboratory facility in Upton, N.Y.

To maximize the collider’s discoveries, we must start attracting and training its workforce now. We have an incredible opportunity to cultivate a diverse and talented team, and that starts with current high schoolers. All too often, these students are exposed only to the most basic, rudimentary (and potentially less exciting) aspects of physics—the classical precepts that were quantified in the 17th century. A student often has to reach graduate school before learning about the cutting-edge mysteries physicists are investigating today. This must change.

This past summer I ran a pilot program that gave high schoolers a chance to do hands-on particle physics research using simulated data from the future EIC. Our workshop, called “Lets Smash the Proton,” brought 26 students in their first summer of high school in Nashville, Tenn., who had registered in the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, a joint program of Vanderbilt University and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. I based the project on a similar program I helped run at Yale University for seven high school students under the Pathways to Science program. Over the four-day course, students spend two to three hours a day doing physics. Each day started with a half-hour lecture followed by research, where students learned the Python programming language and ran simulations of particle collisions at the EIC. At the end of the workshop, the students gave group presentations on their work. Using the same tools and doing the same work as practicing physicists helped the students practice scientific thinking and feel like they belonged in the realm of rigorous research.

The EIC is a natural choice for scientific outreach in high school because its central premise is easy to understand at varying degrees of complexity. The instrument, which will be the most technologically advanced accelerator facility in the world, will zip electrons at nearly the speed of light and then collide them with atomic nuclei, ranging from protons to gold nuclei. Because the electron is a fundamental particle—it can’t break down into smaller pieces—all we need to do is to measure the movement of the electron after the crash with great accuracy. In essence, everything else we see after the collisions, by process of elimination, must come from the breakup of the proton. These smashups have been compared to finding out what’s inside watches by hitting them with a hammer to see what springs out. By observing many, many such collisions we hope to better understand the inner details of nuclear structure and discover new truths of physics.

Through particle collider physics, the participants learn about many aspects of science, including the principle of conservation of momentum, the basics of fundamental particles and even the field of statistics. At colliders we collect lots of data in the hope that the rare particle processes we seek will show up somewhere in our huge data set. In our workshop, students must predict the path of a particular physical object, such as an electron, after a collision. Once the students realize that they don’t have enough data to identify a general trend, they then run simulations thousands of times and learn to understand the need for large data sets and how to handle their statistics.

Because the EIC is set to turn on in 2033, current high school students will be the right age to become the scientists and researchers working on the collider when we take data. Getting them excited now is key and is also a chance to increase the diversity of the scientific workforce. We want the students to see themselves as not just future scientists but people who are actively contributing to research now—especially if they are from historically underrepresented groups, including Black kids, women and LGBTQIA+ individuals. Throughout the program, the students collaborate with scientists who look like them at all stages in their careers, including senior high schoolers who work in my lab as research assistants and Vanderbilt undergraduate and graduate students, as well as professors. After our successful first year at Vanderbilt, we hope to continue and expand this program. We have made all the details of our workshop publicly available with the aim of promoting similar programs to various other universities and national laboratories.

I still remember my high school science fair project during 10th grade. By conducting actual science for the first time, I moved past the fixed syllabus that was taught in class and got to explore some of the questions that were under active research. It served as a pivotal moment in my life and one that I hope to offer to other students. By getting kids hooked on science now, we not only shape the future of research—we help more people see themselves as scientists and start them on paths toward careers in the exciting world of fundamental research.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *