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Student science in space

Speed read
  • Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys maps orbital radiation with a technology-demonstrator satellite.
  • Cal, a student at the school, became the youngest person to receive grid certification.
  • Harnessing the power of the grid will make it possible to analyze the satellite data in more complex ways.    

Becky Parker, teacher at the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys and director of The Institute for Research in Schools tells us what drove the need for pupils to have access to grid computing:

I’ve taken probably about 1,000 students to CERN and in doing so we have met people like Michael Campbell from the Medipix collaboration. Following on from this and other work with various large scientific institutions, we’ve set up The Institute for Research in Schools: a new national charity supporting school students and teachers in running original research projects.


With this began an eight-year relationship with Medipix, an international collaboration hosted at CERN that’s developed a family of specialized particle-detecting silicon chips. This relationship culminated in the creation of CERN@school; a program aimed at enabling students to do real research, and enhance their education through use of the state-of-the-art technology that these chips provide.

Parker tells us how this affiliation led to the school’s own radiation-mapping experiment being put into orbit in 2014:

As part of that relationship, eight years ago a group of students entered for a competition to put a detector in space. The students suggested using the ‘Timepix’ chips developed by the Medipix2 collaboration. And, it turned out that this CERN technology hadn’t yet been in space.

The students designed a detector called LUCID: the Langton Ultimate Cosmic Ray Intensity Detector, and that was launched last year from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

Cal took over as the leader of LUCID last year. He has just turned 17, but when he got the grid certificate he was 16.

Cal, typing in his password at the local grid authority.


Cal is the youngest person to be given the certification to date. We asked him to explain exactly what grid certification is:

So it’s just essentially like a passport that allows you, as a user of the grid, to be able to get access to the computing resources. It’s really just a file that sits in your computer, which authenticates you. It’s just like the key to get into the grid.


We also asked Cal why he first decided to use grid computing.

When we started getting data coming down from the satellite, it was such a huge quantity.  There would have been no way of doing proper analysis on it using just the facilities we have in school.

We have a reasonably high-powered server here at the school, but obviously the potential for grid computing is vast in comparison. It means we could make so much more out of the opportunity we’ve had to get the detector in space.


But was it difficult getting the certification?

It wasn’t particularly difficult because it’s not a test of ability, so you don’t have to go through any kind of test. It’s just a case of applying to the authorities. Obviously, because we’re a school it’s a lot more complex than if I was, say, a university researcher.

 Becky Parker, teacher at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, and director of The Institute for Research in Schools.

It’s a two-step process: you have to apply online, and persuade the people who run the grid that you have a genuine reason to use it, and that it would really benefit you. Because the resources are limited, they have to reserve it for people who really need the computing power. Then you go down physically to the local grid authority and type a password in. It’s much more complex than just signing up for anything online, but it didn’t take too much time itself.

Much of the process was managed by Tom Whyntie, a consultant scientist who is affiliated with GridPP.


What was the reaction of the folks at GridPP when they found out someone so young was applying for grid certification?

I haven’t been in that much direct contact with them, but at least the people who I have spoken to locally have seemed reasonably surprised. But it’s not just about me, they’re also surprised about how the school has been able to set up this project working with CERN and being in space. 


How has the grid certification helped with the LUCID project so far?

Well we’ve done some things with it already, but I think it’s going to be more use in the near future, so probably over the next year. The satellite was launched in July 2014, so since then the first few months of the project have mainly been trying to optimize the detector settings. We’ve got that process just about right recently and we’re starting to take in data on the largest scale we can. But the next stage of the project will require lots more computing power.

Find out more about this stellar project by watching a TEDxCERN talk given by Becky Parker.

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