KU QuarkNet Week 2-3: Research Underway

 

Research Projects

The QuarkNet research assistants, all high school students or 2016 graduates, are hired to work in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. During this time, they are working with professors, graduate and undergraduate students, and others to contribute to ongoing research projects at the University.

Photos and Descriptions

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Brittany and Ardrian jumped into assembling the QuarkNet Cosmic Ray Muon Detector.

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Prof. Besson advises returning QuarkNet researcher Margot.

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Sabrea, Asher, and Roxanna (seated) learn to operate and analyze the data from radio transmission and reception experiments.

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Sabrea, Asher, and Roxanna (seated) learn to operate and analyze the data from the radio transmission and reception experiment.

 

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Ardrian and Brittany find that commissioning a Cosmic Ray Muon Detector requires lots of testing, careful assembly, and light-tight tape.

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Bennett, Margot, and Pierce collaborate on research. All three are returning QuarkNet researchers.

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Within a couple of days, Ardrian and Brittany had the detector functioning and under test.

 

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A particularly well-timed photo of Bennett and Pierce testing the revisions to their lightning detector, begun in the 2015 research season. Their device(s) are part of the TARA research at KU.

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Bennett and Pierce delivered a preliminary talk about their research work and the hardware they have created to generate a trigger that includes directional and range information.

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The audience at a typical research seminar includes professors, graduate and undergraduate students, and fellow QuarkNet research assistants.

QuarkNet is funded by grants from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.
NSF DOE Logo

 

Makerspaces in Classrooms

I ran across a listserv post I made about a year ago, and it’s something I still think is important. This was in response to a post about converting a classroom into a STEM lab. Here’s my thoughts with only minor edits:

I would recommend perhaps trying to make that STEM lab a full
Makerspace/Hackerspace.​

​Make it a place where your community (students AND teachers) are welcome
to come learn how to use different tools to create, make, invent, and
experience things. I have done something like this with a very small corner
of my classroom, and while the supplies and topics are limited it does give
me a place (and resources) to teach an interested student how to solder,
test electronics, and build projects.

The Maker movement is not limited to any one technology, nor is it just
STEM.​ The new acronym STEAM incorporates the arts, and I believe that
creating Makerspaces/Hackerspaces in schools could be a step toward
reuniting the creative disciplines of science, engineering, and the arts.

With a properly equipped makerspace you could then offer, or could find
people to offer, seminars on woodworking, digital circuit design, robotics,
3d design and printing, fabric crafts and working with sewing and
embroidering, incorporating microcontrollers and programming in artistic
and fashion projects, woodworking, analog circuits, clay sculpture,
microcontroller programming, game programming, jewelry, crafting musical
instruments, creating analog and digital effects circuits (pedals) for
electric guitars…obviously I can’t list everything here.

Make it a space that is open, welcoming, and useful to people interested in
science, engineering, math, and arts.  Cooperate with the art, music, tech
ed, and other teachers to try and bridge the imaginary gap between the
disciplines.

R​esource​s​ you might look at:
http://makered.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Makerspace-Playbook-Feb-2013.pdf

http://www.jocolibrary.org/makerspace

http://oedb.org/ilibrarian/a-librarians-guide-to-makerspaces/

 

New Science Facilities

Our community recently approved a bond issue to, among other things, replace our 1960’s era science classrooms. They are poorly equipped and woefully small.

I have been keeping a “wish list” to share with the architects and engineers during our consultations between now and the end of construction. We break ground in the spring.

Physics teachers, what classroom features, bulit-ins, and equipment would you consider essential to include in a new facility? What would be on your ‘wishlist’?

Please comment below and/or reply on twitter to http://www.twitter.com/jim_deane .

Spontaneous Calculation

Sometimes the most fun in class is when it skews off in a wildly unplanned direction.  Sometimes it’s a big skew, sometimes a little detour.

We have been studying particle physics topics in class for the past couple of weeks, including a trip to Kansas State University for a QuarkNet Master Class.  We were discussing in class that the data we used to determine the mass of the top quark came from the Tevatron at Fermilab, and that it was from a proton-antiproton collision.

Some of my students were a little incredulous at the thought of antimatter, asking “Isn’t that a science fiction thing?”  Yes, yes it is, but it is also very real.  There just isn’t much of it around, and that why exactly we have almost exclusively matter and no antimatter is a Really Good Question We Haven’t Solved Yet.  Although there is no significant amount of antimatter naturally occurring anywhere in the universe, such as no antimatter stars or planets or nebulae that we are aware of, we can manufacture it.

Manufacture it?  Yes, we can.  Particle colliders like the LHC do it all the time.  It is even created naturally in tiny quantities through certain types of radioactive decay.

“So,” one of my students asked, “how much would a pop can full of antimatter cost?”

Hmm.

That is a good question that deserves an answer.  After mentioning that I’m pretty sure we have not produced a pop-can full of antimatter of any kind in total, I was off to find the answer.

A Google search quickly came up with a NASA site from 1999 that quoted the cost of antihydrogen at $62.5 trillion per gram.  Sure, that’s 1999 dollars, but it will work for our purposes.

We needed a few other factors, like the density of liquid hydrogen (70.99 g/L), and the conversion from 12 fluid ounces to liters (12 Fl.oz. = 0.354882 L).  And with a quick calculation, we had our answer:  $1.57E15

That’s $1,570,000,000,000,000.

Over one and a half quadrillion dollars.

The discussion swayed to how many pop cans of antimatter you could buy if you could sell the entire planet, but by then the period was winding down and it was time to go.

It leaves me wondering…by the end of my teaching career, how far that cost for a pop-can full of antihydrogen might fall.

Finding a decent highly-portable travel laptop.

For about the last year I’ve been pondering a new laptop.  My old machine is still running quite nicely, despite it being nearly six years old.  It’s been upgraded significantly, but it is a massive block of computer compared to some of today’s options.  I’ve been attending a number of conferences and workshops involving air travel, and every ounce and square inch in my carry-on luggage makes a big difference.  The six-plus pound Toshiba was pushing the limits when cramming onto an Embraer RJ145 commuter jet.

I’m comfortable with  linux based operating systems, and by extension not too uncomfortable with the Mac’s Unix-based OSX operating system.  So when I saw a Macbook Air a few years ago, it seemed a very attractive option for travel.  However, when I specced out a decently powerful machine on Apple’s site, I always ended up somewhere between $1200 and $1700…far too much to make an impulse buy on this teacher’s salary.  I looked at the netbook options (dwindling from the marketplace, unfortunately) and low-end laptops, but it seemed that no one wanted to offer small highly-portable computers with good current processors and memory without charging an arm and a leg.  I asked around, looking for the “windows equivalent” of the Macbook Air at a sub-$1000 price.  I want small.  I want power.  I want memory.  I want inexpensive.  Nothing seemed to meet my desired specs.

Enter the Acer V5 171 series.

My new Acer laptop in a lab setting

The Acer V5 171 series is a very affordable (~$500) line of small notebooks with excellent modern processor and memory options. As shown, it is an i5-3337u with six gigs of ram for $499.

Riding the same chassis as Acer’s Chromebook offerings, this is a deceptively small machine considering the available horsepower under the hood.  I bought a mid-range model with an i5 processor, six gigs of ram, and a 500 gig 5400-rpm hard drive that sold directly from Acer for $499 (normally $579).  You can slash the price even further under $500 by opting for an i3 processor model, and for a bit more you can upgrade to an i7 model with eight gigs of ram.

Versus the Macbook Air, it is certainly a cheaper machine–by about $800 in a similar configuration.  The Macbook has advantages, such as a solid state hard drive (faster and more durable than the mechanical drive in the Acer) and a more sturdy metal chassis.  The Acer’s processor has the edge at a 1.8ghz i5-3337u vs. the Mac’s 1.3ghz i5.  The Acer also has more standard memory in the configuration I bought, 6Gb vs. 4Gb.

Either of these machines would have (in my possession) ended up with the Ubuntu linux operating system in a dual-boot configuration.  I looked at native Ubuntu laptops from System76 and ZaReason, but at the time I looked neither had a small 10″-12″ laptop at a comparable price.  If either of them had a ~12″ three-pound laptop for slightly less than the Acer Win8 machine, I would likely be typing on that now.

So far I’m quite happy with my choice.  Time will tell whether this little machine is durable and well built.

It was a little difficulty to get Windows8 and the UEFI to play nicely with Ubuntu, but a couple of hours of research online led me to working solutions.  I anticipate upgrading to a SSD in the reasonably near future, but for now I am enjoying the space available on the 500 gig drive.  There was plenty of room to shrink the Win8 partition to make space for Ubuntu.

In the next few months I’ll travel several times, and I anticipate this little laptop will be my primary computing companion.  Hopefully I’ll have good news to report on its quality and durability.

Life Long Learning in Theory and Practice

Many people have an idyllic image of a teacher’s summer.  Long lazy days relaxing at the pool, cruising the countryside, or sipping Mai Tai’s on the beach.  Days on the golf course, the tennis court, or the track.  Nights on the town.

Many teachers do enjoy a few of those kinds of activities, but many of us also spend the summers working to improve ourselves in ways a bit different from a golf handicap or a bowling league average.  One of the things that I most look forward to in summers is exploring academics and hobbies that all too often go neglected during the school year.

For the first few years that I taught I turned my summers toward academics by necessity, as I was taking classes to earn my full teaching license and to work toward my master’s in education.  However, I wedged in a few things that were just for me.  A Physics Teacher Resource Agent workshop on light and optics in 2008.  A wonderful class called “How People Learn Science and Mathematics” taught by Paul Adams at Fort Hays State (online) in 2008.  A one-day workshop on technical writing in 2008.  A week-long Modeling Physics workshop at Emporia State in 2009.  The list goes on.

Sure, they’re all nominally “job related”, but they weren’t required, and I wasn’t taking them because I had to.  They were just for me.

And I sometimes do even crazier things.  The “How People Learn…” class at FHSU in 2008 required some small papers and then a substantial research paper at the end.  I decided to teach myself LaTeX, a computer type-setting language favoured by math and science writers, but infamous for its arcane commands and language.  I started using Zotero, a research note-taking and citation aide, and a utility called BibTeX to organize my citations into automatically generated bibliographies.  The combination worked out very well.

My research students are working on about a half dozen highly technical projects in my current summer job as a QuarkNet research teacher at the University of Kansas,   I’m making my way around each group, trying to learn the basics of each of their projects, even as I primarily work with the cosmic ray detector group.

My first acclimation to working with a group of high energy physicists was to dive into Linux with gusto.  I began dipping my toes into the Linux waters in the mid-1990s, but never made the full jump.  It is the operating system of choice in particle physics and in many other areas of science, math, and computer science.  I haven’t really used Microsoft Windows for a few weeks now.  My dual-boot laptop and desktop have been humming away in Ubuntu Linux and I feel like I’m ten times the Linux user now as I was in May.  I’ve even SSH‘ed into servers at KU through my Nexus 7 tablet (thanks to JuiceSSH).  That’s just…awesome.  To a seasoned Linux user that will seem lame…but from a relative novice’s point of view, it’s still cool.

I’ve also taken the opportunity to attend a number of lectures at KU on particle physics topics and scientific programming.  Most of these lectures are given live (and interactively) over web video conferencing, some have been from CERN, some from affiliated universities.  It’s been close to ten years since I was in my graduate physics classes, and I can tell my advanced math and physics needs some upkeep.  Thankfully I have an ample home library, including a great book by David Griffiths called Introduction to Elementary Particles.  It’s helping me keep up a little better.

Another one of our research groups at KU is working on custom antenna designs for use in detecting meteor showers with incidental radio reflections.  The research students are using a computational modeling program called 4NEC2 to design and evaluate their antenna designs.  While I’m not working directly with their research group on a daily basis, I want to learn along with them, so I taught myself how to use WINE to install and run 4NEC2 in Linux.  I’m continuing to learn how to use the program, both to help my research students and also to use in my own amateur radio operations.

As I write this I’m working through a classic Linux task, compiling a program from source code.  The program is ROOT, a data analysis program used by particle physics researchers, developed (as was the World Wide Web) at CERN.  I’ve hit a snag or two.  I’m going through reams of help files, MAN(ual) files, and google searches.  I’m about 90% of the way there…and when I get done, I will have two things.  A copy of ROOT working on my machine, and a new but well-developed beginner’s knowledge of compiling software in Linux,  and troubleshooting all of the surprises that come up along the way.

So what is it about learning that keeps me from spending my summers getting up late and playing video games all day?  There’s something of a triumph in each new skill learned, each topic mastered.  At the end of the day I can do more than I could the day before, or I know something I didn’t know, or understand something I didn’t before.  I’m ready to share more with people to help them grow and triumph.

While my contributions back to the KU QuarkNet program are modest so far, I did introduce many people in the department to the wonders of VPython, a great platform for making computational physics models.  So great, in fact, that it is something my Ottawa High school physics students genuinely enjoy working with.  Let me repeat that in another way:  my regular high school students, few of whom have ANY experience programming, actually ENJOY working in VPython, creating their own Python programs that simulate the physics they are learning about in class.  That’s so cool.

That’s so very cool, and I hope it’s something that helps them realize how rewarding it is to learn, and to keep learning.  Even when they don’t have to.