STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – is a focus area for educators at the global, national, state, and local levels, and has been a significant point of emphasis for us here at ADM. ADM High School’s PLTW engineering, biomedical science programs, and soon-to-be-added computer science programs, along with ADM Middle School’s PLTW-sponsored Gateway to Technology program, have helped our district to provide students with an opportunity to explore STEM fields that is matched by few other schools in the state. While we know that STEM-field career opportunities are growing at a much faster rate than the economy as a whole, I was excited to have the opportunity to visit the U.S. government’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois (Fermilab) recently, where I saw the application of the skills and principles we’re instilling in our students in a working, scientific environment.
Fermilab – a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory focusing on high-energy particle physics – was founded in 1967 on the outskirts of Chicago, and is known worldwide as the home of the Tevatron, a high-energy particle accelerator that was the world’s highest energy accelerator from 1983 until 2010, when it was surpassed by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. The Tevatron ceased operations in 2011, but during its 28 year run was responsible for a number of discoveries, including the discovery of the top quark – a particle in the Standard Model of particle physics – in 1995. The first observations of the Higgs Boson were made using the Tevatron, and Fermilab researchers announced in 2012 that they had narrowed the range of mass for the Higgs to 115 to 135 GeV. Two days later, physicists at CERN announced the discover of the Higgs Boson with a mass of 125 to 126 GeV.
Despite the decommissioning of the Tevatron, Fermilab remains the center of high-energy particle physics research in the United States. During my visit, my group and I spoke with physicists and engineers who were tremendously excited about their work, as well as about the prospect of more American students pursuing degrees in physics and engineering in college.
Physicist Marc Weinberg explained his experimental work searching for evidence of supersymmetry, which theorizes that every type of particle has a corresponding superpartner, none of which have yet been discovered. In order to design and implement innovative new experiments, Dr. Weinberg works with theoretical physicists to establish the theoretical framework within which he’ll work, collaborates with other experimental physicists to devise new ways to test these theories, and coordinates with the engineers who will be responsible for design and construction of the equipment necessary to perform the experiments. Once data begins to come in from an experiment, computer scientists and mathematicians are instrumental in collection and analysis of the results.
We also had the opportunity to speak with Jason St. John about his path to a career in physics, and his current work in neutrino research. Dr. St. John is working on a project called MicroBooNE. Don’t be fooled by the “micro” in the name, however; the MicroBooNE experiment has resulted in the construction of a 10 meter long time projection chamber, which will soon be filled with 89 tons of liquid argon. Inside this massive chamber, a neutrino detector will detect incredibly fine details of neutrino collisions – a rarity in itself – with other particles, paving the way for groundbreaking findings relating to particles that constantly bombard the earth’s surface.
In addition to learning about these new experiments, we also toured the linear accelerator facility at Fermilab, learned about Fermilab’s Mu2e experiment, and got an in-depth tour of the insides of the DZero detector, one of the massive detectors (5 stories tall!) on the Tevatron’s accelerator ring. Further, we were able to enter the Tevatron’s 4.26m main accelerator ring, a place where fewer than one thousand people have ever ventured.
There are tremendous advancements being made at Fermilab, other national and international laboratories, and in industrial settings throughout the world. One of my greatest takeaways from this experience at Fermilab is that science cannot be done in a vacuum, and requires the work of thousands of individuals, each with their own specialties and areas of expertise. By providing our students with the curriculum and equipment to legitimately explore science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, we are helping to provide a better future for our students, and a better future for our society.