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  • Seeing the Light!
    Evansville (WI) High School Students Learn by Doing at SRC

    John Morgan, Science Writer, UW Madison Synchrotron Radiation Center

    June 8, 2006

    There is perhaps no better way for a student to master concepts than to include some form of learning by doing. This lesson is not lost on Rick Cole, instructor of physics at Evansville High School, and his students. Cole and the students in his Advanced Placement Physics course have visited the Synchrotron Radiation Center (SRC) each of the past four years as the course's capstone experience.

    Evansville Class

    Evansville HS class next to the SRC SPECTRA chamber at SRC.

    Essentially a college-level course, the students in Cole's A.P. Physics spent much of the semester studying the basics, like energy and Newtonian laws, before launching into the more complex details of physics. To conclude the course, not only was a formal test of their knowledge given via the A.P. exam, but students were also provided with the unique challenge of applying this knowledge by conducting a project that included work at the SRC.

    "We took all that knowledge we generated throughout the year and really applied it," explains Carly Andrew, a junior who speaks excitedly about the course, science and her interest in going into engineering in the future.

    SRC User from Russia explains his research to students.

    As part of its growing commitment to enabling science teachers to teach the physics of light, the SRC offers its SPECTRA (Students Performing Experiments Collaboratively Through Remote Access) program. SPECTRA uses an SRC research station that is attached to the electron storage ring, called Aladdin, where electrons zoom around a baseball-diamond-sized ring at the speed of light. The light that is produced by these electrons is used for myriad experiments by world-class researchers who visit the SRC each year. Recent projects have included work on brain tumor treatments and cutting-edge discoveries uncovering the mysteries of Alzheimer's disease. And, this year, the list of researchers includes yet another group from Evansville High School.

    But unlike the researchers who come to the SRC each year from across the globe, the Evansville High Students accessed SPECTRA remotely, via a web interface, which enabled them to "tell" the research equipment what to do. This included photoabsorption and photoemission studies of materials like aluminum, gold and silicon. Cole, who notes that future researchers will undoubtedly be involved in a world of science that is based on working remotely, finds the opportunity for his students to conduct research at the SRC—a national laboratory—to be invaluable.

    "It's actually a hand's on experience. It sets an example. It raises the bar for them to follow," Cole explains. "I mean, how many high school students can say they worked with or on a synchrotron?!"

    Poster SessionStudent explains her project during the poster session.

    Indeed, Cole and his students are dedicated to the idea that truly learning about physics is more than learning what tidbits of trivia will enable them to do well on the A.P. exam (although they do this quite well, too). Instead, these students are truly excited about doing science and learning to do it well.

    "I ended up just learning about how to do an experiment itself," says Elise Larson, a junior. Larson notes that she had never really been faced with a situation where she was at the controls of a scientific experiment. And for her, the experience was illuminating.

    "I have students who sign up for this class that are waiting all year long just for the opportunity," notes Cole, whose class has turned into an exceptionally special experience for the students who take it, and a great example of how SPECTRA can be used to truly enable students to learn by doing.


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