Yaron Teich (Wheelock’16), who goes by Roni most of the time, is a physics teacher at Somerville High School, where he teaches Honors Physics and the newly-formed SEI Physics, which is specifically for students who are in the process of learning English. Over this past summer, he sought out a professional development opportunity that would take him across the Atlantic to a suburb just north of Geneva, Switzerland. There, he and 45 fellow science educators from 33 different countries spent two weeks learning about the history, structure, and groundbreaking science behind the Center for European Nuclear Research (CERN).
Roni and his cohort toured the facilities at CERN, which is home to some of the most advanced machines related to particle physics. They got an up-close look at the Large Hadron Collider, (LHC) which is situated in an underground tunnel that runs in a 17-mile circle. And, they took part in lectures by some of the top scientists in the field, learning about what the future of particle physics might look like.
Through this program Roni gained an understanding of CERN and particle physics that he’ll take back to his students at Somerville High School. It’s an opportunity for those students to use the experience and knowledge he’s gained as a jumping-off point for their own interest in particle physics.
We spoke with Roni about his experience in the CERN International High School Teacher program, his plans for sharing that experience with his students, and why it’s important for more Americans (not just physics teachers and students) to understand the work being done at CERN.
BU Wheelock: What were some of the highlights of the program – most memorable site visits, lectures?
Roni: I would say I have 3 very memorable parts of the program:
First, our trip to the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment was quite spectacular. We had spent the first week at CERN learning all about this impressive, giant machine which detects particles (such as electrons, muons, and photons) that result from the proton-proton collisions inside the LHC. We were very excited when we realized we would actually get to go underground and visit the detector up close! We took a large elevator 100 meters underground and spent a good while walking on a platform just a few feet from the 14,000 ton detector. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Towards the end of the second week at CERN, we had a lecture from Michael Doser on the topic of antimatter. Contrary to much of what is seen and discussed in science fiction movies, antimatter is very real: all particles, such as electrons, have an anti-particle twin (in this case, a positron, also known as an anti-electron). This lecture was captivating and was unique in that it was done completely on a blackboard–no PowerPoints or videos or anything. He took the teachers in the room from understanding just the basics of what antimatter is to why it is important to keep researching it and what the future of antimatter research might hold.
Finally, my last highlight was getting to talk and share experiences with so many people from all over the world. CERN is a special place as it is, but exploring such an awesome facility with physics teachers from countries like India, Australia, Spain, and Italy was very cool. Learning with people who come from such vastly different backgrounds is quite different from what I am used to.
Why is it valuable for educators to gain exposure to the types of science being conducted by CERN around projects like the LHC?
High school physics tends to cover the basics: Newton’s Laws, kinematics, energy, and simple cases with electric circuits and magnetism. If students are lucky, they get exposed to some modern physics, astrophysics, or quantum mechanics before they enter college. But almost no high school curricula call for the teaching of particle physics; this is not because it is not important, but because the content is advanced and much of the science and discoveries are relatively recent (since the entire field has only come into being in the last 70 years).
For students to gain an understanding of how our world works at the smallest scales, and what our universe is truly composed of, they must gain at least a preliminary understanding of particle physics. In order for this to happen, educators need to become relative experts in this area as well, and need to develop exciting, accessible content for students that gets them aware of and interested in CERN and particle physics.
How do you plan on bringing your experience with this program into your own classrooms?
I initially planned on teaching an entirely new unit on CERN and particle physics in my Honors Physics classes this year, but that quickly fizzled out. It would not allow for straightforward vertical alignment with the other levels of physics taught at Somerville, and would require an incredible amount of new content made from scratch.
Instead, I now plan on integrating the things I learned at CERN as extensions of the units that I already teach in the form of readings, videos, lectures, and hands-on activities. For example, when discussing acceleration in a few weeks, I will include material on how particles are accelerated at the LHC; I also want to have the students build a model of the LHC using transparent tubes some arrangement of magnets to accelerate small balls around the ring.
When we discuss energy, we will go through calculations of how much kinetic energy a proton has when traveling through the LHC at 99% the speed of light. When we get to electromagnetic radiation at the end of the year, we will spend a day or two looking at the medical applications of this field and how that ties directly into particle physics and proton therapy. It will take careful planning to make this content accessible, but I am looking forward to sharing my experiences and new knowledge with my students.
Did this experience give you any insight into some of the “bigger” things educators could change about science classroom practice in American public schools?
This is a difficult question. I do not believe I picked up on any major changes that American educators could introduce in our science classrooms. Obviously, some countries have more advanced science programs and higher achieving students that many schools in the United States, but there are numerous intervening factors that contribute to these differences.
The international educators that I spoke with at CERN all worked at different types of schools and had different perspectives on what good teaching looked like. Some teachers’ schools were still fairly traditional, with lectures, challenging math-based physics problem sets, and state-mandated testing. But other teachers talked about their student-centered classrooms and diverse populations of students, and the interesting field trips on which they take their students.
The common thread I heard discussed among the teachers was the need for inspiring, excited, and knowledgeable teachers in physics. All of the people there were excitable, social, and were curious about their subject and could explain things to others passionately.
It is worth noting that most Americans (especially if they are not in the physics or science community) have never heard of CERN. While NASA is a household name in the United States, CERN carries a similar weight in the international physics community; it is one of the most renowned physics research facilities in the world. We can give our students some perspective and worldliness by exposing them to the idea that other parts of the world do science at a level that is just as advanced, if not more so, than the US.