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Saturday mornings are for physics at Fermilab

Erik Ramberg (left) who co-chairs Saturday Morning Physics works Fermilab's particle physics divisigives tour lab's accelerator. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

Erik Ramberg (left), who co-chairs Saturday Morning Physics and works in Fermilab's particle physics division, gives a tour of the lab's accelerator. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 10, 2014 6:22AM

BATAVIA — When 17-year-old Luis Cepeda began attending Saturday Morning Physics in early October at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, he had very little exposure to physics.

A senior in East Aurora High School’s magnet program, Cepeda had just started taking physics in high school and heard about Fermilab’s program from his teacher. He liked physics so far and wanted to take more difficult classes that weren’t being offered at his school.

Over the last two months, Cepeda — the only student from East Aurora attending the program this session — has learned from Fermilab scientists about subatomic particles and the origins of the universe and taken numerous tours of the lab.

Cepeda said the Fermilab program helped him do better in physics at East Aurora because he had been exposed to higher level concepts. Physics’ many unanswered questions became his favorite part of the subject.

“Physics never ends,” said Cepeda, who plans to pursue biomedical engineering in college. “It’s a quest into the unknown that you’ll possibly never get to.”

Program history

Fermilab’s Saturday Morning Physics began in the early 1980s under the direction of Leon Lederman and Drasko Jovanovic. High school students nominated by their schools attended 10 two-hour lectures that taught them the basics of particle physics.

In 1997, Roger Dixon and Erik Ramberg took over the program, and they still direct it together today. Knowing that not every student interested in physics would go on to be a physicist or scientist, the duo instituted an informal policy to accept all interested students.

They also retooled the curriculum to focus on sparking curiosity over rigorously teaching high-level physics.

“We preferred that they be given enough facts to mystify them and to make them want to learn more about the subject,” Dixon wrote in a history of the program.

Free for students, the program covers physics topics — such as cosmology and quantum mechanics — that are rarely addressed in high school. Though students are mostly in high school, some are undergraduates, or as young as fifth and sixth grade.

Dixon and Ramberg have reached out to about 80 high schools in a 15-mile radius of the lab to let schools know about the program. Most students come from Aurora, Naperville and Glen Ellyn, but some students have come from as far as Iowa and Indiana.

Isa Martinez, 14, traveled from Chicago to be part of this session, which runs through Dec. 14.

“I wanted to be able to have something for my transcript to get ahead,” said Martinez, who added that the lab tours were her favorite part of the program.

Ramberg said one of the biggest differences he’s noticed about the program since he started in the mid-1990s is that more female students are attending, particularly in the last eight years.

“I used to keep track [of female students] but now I don’t bother anymore,” he said. “Physics is certainly more male-dominated than many of the other sciences. But maybe we are addressing that problem.”

The lab hosts three sessions each school year and registration stays open until the maximum occupancy for the lecture room, which can seat 166, fills up.

Students who attend at least seven of nine two-hour classes are considered graduates.

Last school year, 302 students registered for the program and 176 graduated. In school year 2011-12, 296 students registered and 207 graduated. So far this year, 166 students registered for session one and 98 will graduate next week.

“It’s an enthusiastic student who comes nine Saturdays in a row,” Ramberg said. “You don’t get the students who aren’t interested.”

Spots are still available in this school year’s second and third sessions, which run Jan. 11 to March 8 and March 15 to May 17.

The next generation

On Saturday, Fermilab physicist Jyotsna Osta stood at the head of a lecture hall for the second-to-last lecture about neutrinos, a mysterious subatomic particle being studied at Fermilab.

It was the first time the lecture was given at Saturday Morning Physics. Osta, who is part of an international team that researches how neutrinos interact with matter, approached Dixon and Ramberg about adding the lesson. Normally, students don’t learn about neutrinos until undergraduate or graduate school.

“Fermilab’s focus is going to be intensity frontier physics in the future and neutrinos are a huge part of that,” Osta said.

“There is a lot of work here if you guys are interested,” she said to the students. “In fact, you should be.”

She worked through the history of the particle from its discovery in 1956 to present day, explaining which scientists contributed to research and posing the many questions that still remain about neutrinos.

When she got to the final slide of her lecture, she had a message for the students.

“There may be surprises awaiting us that will turn out to be even more sensational than anything that has happened so far.”

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