BL4S, or how CERN sets the stage for teenage scientists

Launched in 2014, the Beamline for Schools (BL4S) competition allows high-school students between 16 and 18 years old to run a real experiment at CERN’s PS accelerator (see here). For two years, students and schools worldwide have risen to the challenge and taken part enthusiastically in the competition. To ensure that it runs smoothly and enjoyably, over 100 CERN people work behind the scenes. The Bulletin lifts the curtain.


Student teams from Greece and the Netherlands – the winners of CERN’s first Beamline for schools competition – came to CERN to work on their experiments using a test beam.

Turning young high-school students into real physicists who use a high-energy beam, set up an experiment and deal with data acquisition and analysis, is no game. For the people at CERN, the first step is to select the best proposals from those received from schools worldwide. “In 2015, over 40 scientists helped us select the best proposals,” explains Markus Joos, a software engineer from the PH department who acted as BL4S project leader this year. “Once we had selected the winners, we needed to ‘translate’ the students’ proposals into real and feasible projects.”

Two young support scientists were asked by the project leader to coordinate this crucial phase of the project. In 2015, Tim Brooks from Royal Holloway, University of London, and Candan Dozen from Çukurova University (Turkey), worked on preparing the experimental environment for the students. “It was a fantastic opportunity, getting hands-on experience assembling the components of a full high-energy physics experiment from the ground up,” says Tim. Candan agrees: “Being responsible for implementing an experiment that was proposed by a team of ambitious students was no small burden in the beginning. The ten days we spent with the students have been an incredible experience and have helped me a lot to develop skills that will be essential for my professional career.”

Left to right: Markus Joos (BL4S Project leader), Candan Dozen (Scientific support) and Tim Brooks (Scientific support).

In addition to the young support scientists, BL4S involves people from various departments and units, including hardware, software, beam and safety experts. “It’s a true collaboration,” says Joos. “However, in the case of BL4S, most of the CERN people involved in making the project happen and run smoothly are actually working on a volunteer basis.”

Obviously, the budget is also an issue. In 2014, the project was almost exclusively funded by CERN, but private contributors provided 50% of its budget in 2015. “Among our supporters are the Motorola Solutions Foundation and the Ernest Solvay Fund, managed by the King Baudouin Foundation,” explains Joos. “National Instruments also made a very special contribution by developing LabVIEW 3D software especially for us. With this LabVIEW-based software, the students can visualise what is happening in their experiment, which also makes a very nice educational tool for all the high -school students.”

Although CERN will remain the main sponsor of BL4S with its contribution in terms of beam time and services, the feasibility of the project in the coming years will also depend on funding from external supporters. If you are interested in supporting BL4S, please visit this page. In the meantime, the successful concept of making a beam line available to schools is spreading to other laboratories around the world: both the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) and Fermilab in the US are inviting students from their countries who participated in BL4S to carry out their experiments at their beam facilities.


Figures and winners

In 2014 and 2015, a total of 667 teams from 57 countries signed up and 411 proposals were submitted. The four winning teams (two each year) were:

  • In 2014:
 Odysseus' Comrades from Greece, investigating the decay of charged pions to study the weak force, one of the four fundamental forces of Nature, and Dominicuscollege from the Netherlands, growing their own crystals to make a calorimeter, a detector that measures the energy of particles, and to test and calibrate it with different particles.
  • In 2015:
 Leo4G from Italy, using and calibrating a particle detector built from common, low-cost materials and a customised web-cam and Accelerating Africa from South Africa, investigating the production of high-energy gamma rays using a crystalline undulator.


by Antonella Del Rosso