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A physics masterclass for the masses

Particle physicists at CERN are bridging the gap between academic research and classroom physics. The MINERVA (Masterclass INvolving Event Recognition Visualized with Atlantis) team makes game-like exercises, so that secondary school children and teachers can learn about the fundamental science done at CERN.

A simulated event in the MINERVA display showing the elusive Higgs particle, indicated by two muons (orange) and two electrons (green). This is expected to happen because the Higgs should decay into two Z bosons, which then decay into two electrons and two muons. Image courtesy Tom McLaughlan

This online tutorial uses the same particle event display that the ATLAS detector draws on from collisions at the LHC. Students analyze real scientific data from CERN and join the search for new physics.

MINERVA was started from a collaboration between the University of Birmingham (UK) and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxford. It was originally developed, with the help of Mark Stockton of Birmingham University, as an education tool for master classes where experts would help students and teachers. Now, the team has gone further and made a website anyone can use. Monika Wieler, a physicist and one of the project leaders, said, "I hope users will learn to love the precision of physics."

Bread and Butter

MINERVA empowers non-experts by focusing on key elements of the ATLAS detector. Users learn how to recognize different particles made in collisions, such as electrons and muons, by visually identifying their unique signatures in the MINERVA event display. W and Z boson particle decays are analyzed and measured because they are well understood by scientists as mediators of the weak nuclear force. Therefore, schoolchildren can gain insight into the day-to-day work of particle physicists.

One big question about the tool: Could a 15-year-old find the Higgs Boson before scientists at CERN?

The answer is probably not, because MINERVA's data goes through a strict approval process before being made public. "We do have Higgs events and a prize for whoever finds it. But, this is just a simulated event" said Tom McLaughlan, MINERVA's Java developer from Birmingham University.

McLaughlan continued, "We showcase some of the exciting aspects of particle physics, while still showing that it's not just for boffins." School teachers are benefiting from MINERVA's approach to visualizing physics data as well.

Konrad Jende, a physics teacher hosts the application on his website, and he said "I am a little bit jealous that I haven't had such opportunities like this when I was at school." He uses the software to not only visualize collisions, but to distinguish between particle signals and background noise.

Dissemination is key

Outreach work by the University of Birmingham. It uses the MINERVA software to teach students about CERN's fundamental particle physics research. Image courtesy Lynne Long

While MINERVA is freely available, a problem facing the project is making more people more aware of its existence. It was made out of the spare time and creativity of working physicists, eager to share their work with the wider world. These physics 'evangelists' strive to spread information about their tool to science teachers by presenting at schools or inviting classrooms for workshops. "MINERVA is done in parallel with research work, but there are many other demands on our time" said Peter Watkins, head of physics at Birmingham University. Even so, it is an international project with users from Europe to Australia.

This outreach tool is similar to a fast-growing venture called CERN@school by Becky Parker of the Simon Langton Grammar School. The main difference between MINERVA and CERN@school is Parker's project uses CERN technology to enable schoolchildren to analyze cosmic ray events from space, whereas MINERVA uses CERN's particle collision data from the LHC.

Watkins agreed that there could be better coordination and awareness about these projects. But, he highlighted that his team are planning more workshops that will include the educational tool. Birmingham University is running a CERN masterclass for schools this April. He emphasized that not a lot of money is needed to promote their work, and if provided, would go a long way in improving the quality of secondary school physics education. The UK's STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council) currently supports physics outreach to schools and is interested in extending this work around the country.

Anyone with a computer capable of running a recent version of Java can use MINERVA. The website is still being updated. Please contact Tom McLaughlan if you encounter any problems with the software.

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