Collider in the Classroom
WAXAHACHIE, TEXAS — WHAT do frozen bananas have to do with high-energy physics? A lot - at least according to third graders in Addie Ryan's class at T. C. Wilemon Elementary School here. The students learned something about how magnets in the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) will be cooled by dipping a banana into liquid nitrogen (at -195.8 C), turning it rock hard.Ms. Ryan's students participated this year in a pilot of the "Adopt a Magnet" program, developed by the SSC Lab for students in kindergarten though the fifth grade. "Adopt a Magnet" aims to help students understand the purpose and function of the SSC, teaching about science and technology in the process. Upon completion of the program, participating schools "adopt" one of the more than 10,000 superconducting magnets that will make up the SSC. Schools receive an adoption certificate, and the school's name is placed on the adopted magnet. Scheduled for completion by the year 2000, the controversial SSC will make a 54-mile ring around Waxahachie, Texas. Supporters of the SSC, the largest and most expensive scientific instrument ever built, say it will be the premier high-energy physics lab in the world. Its construction, however, has met with opposition, particularly in Congress, where the multibillion price tag is a hot issue. Even so, the SSC is expected to be a tremendous educational tool - for students from kindergarten to the PhD level, and for the general public. The SSC is the first national laboratory to emphasize research and education equally, says Sherrie (Sam) Kivlighn, deputy head of education at the SSC Lab in Dallas. Although the lab is developing educational programs for students at all levels, Ms. Kivlighn says there is a "new focus" on elementary, kindergarten, and even pre-kindergarten students. She cites statistics from a report of the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology ("By the Year 2000"). "This is the place to s tart [science education]," agrees Ryan. But how can kindergartners begin to understand the huge complexity of the SSC? Lola Williamson, the SSC lab's coordinator for "Adopt a Magnet Education," explains that the very young students are introduced to the SSC through songs and games. For example, words sung to the tune of "Bah, bah, black sheep" explain the SSC's basic function and purpose. A puppet named VIP (for very important proton) introduces youngsters to atomic structure. Williamson says the songs and puppets have been so effective that t eachers of the older elementary students who participated in the pilot have suggested that they be used at those levels as well. At present, older children make an electromagnet and do other electronic projects, Williamson says. An "Adopt a Magnet" video, coloring/activity book, and music cassette are being developed. The program will be available for general distribution during the 1991-92 school year, and may expand to include grades six through eight. The SSC Lab has received requests from schools in 47 states and eight other countries to participate in the program. Universities, labs, and scientific organizations across the country are involved in "a great variety" of science education activities that focus on a central problem or theme, says Gerhard Salinger, a program director in the Instructional Materials Development program at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. Will youngsters singing songs about the SSC today be the ones operating it in the 21st century? Possibly, but rather than training future employees for the SSC, the lab's educational programs are aimed at preparing students for the enormous amount of spinoff technology that is likely to result from the SSC, Kivlighn says. "Technical literacy is essential," Kivlighn says, citing statistics from studies done by the National Science Foundation and other groups that show that the United States is facing an unprecedented shortage of new scientists and engineers in the 21st century. "Science is here to stay no matter what your profession," she adds, pointing out that a secretarial job requires knowledge of computers, fax machines, and copiers - all technologies resulting from scientific research. THE SSC Lab is not alone in recognizing the collider's educational potential. The Boy Scouts of America have requested that the SSC become an official science post for Explorer Scouts. National educational organizations are working with the SSC Lab to develop an earth-science program for middle-school students that will ask students to consider the geological factors that went into selecting the Texas site for the SSC. Judy Reinhartz, professor of education at the University of Texas at Arlington, sees the building of the SSC as an event as significant as the launching of the Sputnik satellites in 1957. Dr. Reinhartz says that Sputnik woke up the American public to an educational situation very much like the one today, when few students are choosing to major in science. "After 1957, there was a great thrust in science education in this country," she says. Reinhartz sees the SSC as a "hook" that can "stimulate interest" in such science topics as electricity, magnetism, and cryogenics. Reinhartz is a member of the National Super Collider Education Consortium (NSEC), a private foundation formed in 1989 by educators and business people from the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. NSEC is developing a curriculum for teaching science topics related to the SSC for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. A pilot of the NSEC curriculum was taught this year to K-5 students in Ellis County, Texas, where the SSC is under construction. The NSEC's approach to teaching about the SSC is similar to that of the SSC Lab's "Adopt a Magnet" program. Ryan's third-graders participated in both pilot programs this year, and she says that in teaching both there was a bit too much duplication. But duplication did not seem to dampen the enthusiasm of Ryan's students for the SSC. In a warm classroom near the end of the school day, they were literally jumping out of their seats for a turn to describe their favorite activities from each of the two pilot programs. The students enjoyed writing a rap song about the SSC, making models of atoms from modeling clay, making designs by moving iron filings around with a magnet - and of course, freezing the banana.