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Foundation supports particle physics program

Adam Llorens | Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fifteen years ago, physics professor Randy Ruchti started the QuarkNet Center at Notre Dame to develop an interest in particle physics among students and provide research opportunities for high school teachers across the country.

Now, professor Mitchell Wayne and the University run the national QuarkNet program, currently comprised of 50 centers nationwide involving more than 500 high school teachers.

As a result of its growth and progress, the National Science Foundation awarded the Department of Physics a $6.1 million gift to support the educational program.

“It’s important to receive funding from the government to continue research and do broader education outreach to bring the excitement of physics to high school students and teachers,” Wayne, the program’s principal investigator, said.

Local high school teachers meet every week at Notre Dame’s QuarkNet Center on Eddy Street to discuss curriculum development, methods for bringing research into the classroom and ways to get their students excited about science.

These teachers and students collaborate each year to conduct research at the center. Wayne said one of the two detectors that discovered the groundbreaking Higgs boson particle has components built by local high school teachers and students working with Notre Dame professors and students in the lab.

“I’ve seen some of our local students really get excited about scientific research and go on to do well in science fairs and decide to study physics in college,” Wayne said. “A couple years ago, we saw the first of our QuarkNet students receive a Ph.D. in physics who began as a high school junior in our lab. It’s great to see the local teachers get involved, conduct research and get excited about physics.”

Last December, the University submitted a proposal to receive an additional five years of funding, Wayne said.

“We then had a joint review with the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., during the springtime,” he said. “We were officially notified a few weeks ago of this award.”

Wayne said the department will use the $6.1 million award to support other QuarkNet centers through stipends.

“It all goes to helping our staff to provide help and support to high school teachers across the country,” he said.

Education and outreach are important pillars of the department’s mission, Wayne said.

“It’s really important for Notre Dame to be giving back to the community, especially in S.T.E.M. [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] areas,” Wayne said. “Our center provides professional development for local high school physics teachers and helps get students interested in the subject.”