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Fermilab | Batavia, IL | USA

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High schools find chance to show off at Fermilab

A Naperville North High School student gives a hover craft a start during the Fermilab Open House. Credit: Fermilab/Cindy Arnold

Darwin Smith gathered a group of students to drive four hours to exhibit physics concepts science-fair style at Fermilab.

The Hamilton high school teacher got no complaints from these seniors even though they were giving up a beautiful Sunday and many had only had a few hours of sleep. The draw was the rare chance to show their love for science and see how their skills stacked up to peers from big city schools.

Judging from the consistent crowds of children and adults that pressed up against their exhibits, this rural school stacked up just fine. During the five hours of the Fermilab Open House Feb. 27, the Hamilton students along with peers from other schools rarely had time to catch their breaths.

Fermilab’s first venture into showcasing student-designed, hands-on exhibits at its Open House delighted visitors and offered a chance for  students to flex their creative, independent study and critical thinking skills.

“They didn’t just take equipment we have and show it,” said Katherine Sequino, the science department chair at Naperville Central High School.  “They built this from scratch, they had to brain storm, they had to problem solve and they have to be able to explain it to people of all ages.”

Politicians and education experts recently have touted the need for such critical thinking skills to keep the U.S. economy strong, build a tech-savvy workforce and a science-savvy voting public.  Yet, the traditional germination grounds for these skills have dwindled amidst school budget cuts, volunteer shortages and limited time in the academic day.

Many of the 12 student teams from Chicago, Hamilton, Glenview, Naperville, Skokie and Orland Park that were manning exhibits at Fermilab said that they lacked chances to partake in the science fair right of passage or similar events. That is a national issues according to a recent New York Times article.

“This is the only place we’ll get to do this,” said Connor McCarthy, a senior at Naperville North High School. “It is great to see

Naperville Central High School students demonstrate how a laser works. Credit:Fermilab/ Cindy Arnold

the reactions of the kids, especially the smaller kids. It is great to see their faces light up when they ride it. It makes all the work worthwhile.”

The physics club McCarthy belongs to created a hover craft using plywood and a leaf blower that sent children sliding across the lobby like air-hockey pucks.

“We knew that would differentiate us from the other experiments,” he said.

 Not only did the students have to come up with a physics concept such as magnetism, force and motion and light that they could illustrate and explain to all age groups, but they also had to tap marketing magic to draw and keep a crowd of fickle preteens. The Naperville Central High School Girl Engineers Mathematicians Scientists, or GEMS, club built its experiment around lasers; Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago gave candy as prized to its static electricity race.

Fermilab Education Office Director Marge Bardeen saw teens in Spain undertaking similar exhibits at public events and brought the idea home to Fermilab.  Local schools were quick to jump at the chance.

Students from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago use ballons and Curious George to explain static electricity. Credit: Fermilab/Cindy Arnold

“We thought it would be good for the young kids who come to the open house to have role models closer to their age and to see that through school activities they can be well on their way to becoming scientists,” said Spencer Pasero, Fermilab education office program leader.

Michelle Kwon, a fourth-grader from Glen Ellyn, said it was great to see girls explaining how lasers work because she’s heard the stereotype that girls can’t do well at math and science.  She also preferred learning science concepts from teens rather than adults.

“They explain it better,” Kwon said.

The teens themselves also found the concepts got cemented in their brains after learning how to distill the science to sound bites and elementary-school level language.

“I think I can explain it better and actually understand it better after saying it 50 times,” said Allison Von Vorstel, a senior at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park. 

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