CERN’s educational programmes have inspired large numbers of physics teachers all over Europe to adopt innovative approaches to teaching.  Becky Parker, a former participant in the High School Teachers (HST) programme, has set up the CERN@school project, in which students are using Medipix chips to study cosmic rays. They have recently designed and are building Lucid, a detector that will be launched into space in 2011.

The LUCID detector designed by the Langton school.

Take a school with the declared aim of ‘providing learning experiences which are enjoyable, stimulating and challenging and which encourage critical and innovative thinking’. Add to that a motivated teacher who wants to put it into practice and you have the perfect seeds for growing a new generation of young researchers.

Becky Parker came to CERN in 2007. She observed how cutting-edge research is done here and decided to export it to her school. However, she didn’t just go back to school and make a presentation to her students explaining how CERN works; instead, she took a real detector and started a real research programme with her class.

This is all happening in the UK, not far from Canterbury, the city famous for its cathedral. What these students and their teachers are doing is no less challenging than the construction of a cathedral: they want to change the whole philosophy behind education. Rather than teaching and learning what others have done in the past, they want to MAKE science and directly contribute to real research.

Medipix proved to be a perfect solution for Becky’s revolutionary plans: the technology was easily obtainable from CERN, immediately re-usable and relatively simple to handle for the students. “I visited the Medipix laboratory during one of my visits to CERN”, recollects Becky. “I immediately started thinking of possible ways of using it in my school. Michael Campbell, who is the spokesperson for the Medipix collaboration, had already thought that the Timpepix chips could have a number of uses in school”. For Becky’s students the Timepix chip became a cosmic-ray detector. “You simply connect it to your computer via a USB box developed at the Institute of Experimental and Applied Physics (IEAP) in Prague, then you install the ‘Pixelman’ software developed for the Medipix collaboration by the IEAP and you're ready to go!”, she explains.

Not surprisingly, the students loved working with current technology from CERN and actively started to network with other schools in the country. “The philosophy is totally exportable to other schools across the UK and Europe. We hope to involve many other schools in the project. Each school will have its own Timepix detector and will have access to the CERN@school website so that students can discuss results with each other and with their teachers”, she says. Thanks to a contribution from the Kent Youth Parliament, another ten schools in Kent have recently been able to acquire the detector chips, the USB box and the laptops needed to participate in the project.

Moreover, Becky’s school is setting up the Langton Star Centre, a facility that includes labs and seminar rooms. “We can now invite other schools to come and visit us. The new infrastructure will make it easy for us to train them and introduce them to our scientific projects”, Becky comments enthusiastically.

In 2008 the Langton Satellite Team were joint winners of a national competition run by the British National Space Centre. They worked in conjunction with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd to design a small experiment that would fly on board a small satellite in space. “LUCID (Langton Ultimate Cosmic ray Intensity Detector) will use five Timepix detectors, positioned in a sort of matrix to enable a high angle of resolution for cosmic ray detection, with tracking capabilities”, explains Becky. “It will be launched into space in 2011 on board a satellite built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. The data from the satellite will be made available to the schools involved in the project. Together, we will compare the data taken in space with measurements done on Earth”.

Thanks to its innovative approach to science teaching, about 1% of students studying for physics and engineering degrees at UK universities come from the Simon Langton Grammar School. Bravo!

by CERN Bulletin