Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

NIU Physics Professor Dhiman Chakraborty explains to high school physics teacher Elisa Gatz how scintillation light generated in silver-dollar-sized tiles of plastic is detected with photosensors in a scheme pioneered at NIU.
NIU Physics Professor Dhiman Chakraborty explains to high school physics teacher Elisa Gatz how scintillation light generated in silver-dollar-sized tiles of plastic is detected with photosensors in a scheme pioneered at NIU.

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

July 1, 2009

NIU involving high school teachers
in cutting-edge physics research

DeKalb, Ill. — Forget about R and R, shorthand for rest and relaxation. Physics teachers Elisa Gatz of Sterling High School and Jim Browne of Amboy High School are using their summer break to get a little R and D.

Gatz recently began conducting research and development on particle detection alongside scientists in Northern Illinois University’s High Energy Physics Group, while Browne is working at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory on the LIGO project, which aims to detect gravitational waves.

Elementary particle physics isn’t the normal fare for high school science teachers or students. But that is changing in some schools across the country thanks to QuarkNet, a 12-year-old professional teacher development program funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

As participants in QuarkNet at NIU, Gatz and Browne hope to incorporate what they learn during the eight-week program into cutting-edge physics lessons at their respective schools.

“I didn’t really learn much about high energy or particle physics when I was going through my training as a teacher, but I’ve always found it fascinating,” Gatz says. “I hope to learn more so that I can apply it in my classroom.”

The NIU Department of Physics this year was named as an official QuarkNet center, a designation shared with 52 other top universities and laboratories nationwide, including the University of Chicago, John Hopkins University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory. QuarkNet ultimately aims to interest more high school students in the sciences.

Gatz and Browne are receiving an intensive eight-week summer training to become “lead teachers.” As such, they will help train several other high school physics teachers from nearby districts during one-week workshops at NIU in future years.

“We’re thrilled to become a QuarkNet center, especially when considering that only a handful of institutions are accepted into the network each year,” says Pati Sievert, NIU’s outreach coordinator for science, technology, engineering and math. “It puts us in good company.”

The first QuarkNet institute at NIU was held during the summer of 2008 as a joint exercise between NIU and Argonne National Laboratory. During the week-long program, both physics teachers and high school students were taught how to assemble and use cosmic ray detectors.

Now NIU is charged with strengthening and expanding the program to schools in northwestern Illinois. Amboy, Byron, Sterling and DeKalb high schools are enrolled with the NIU center, as is Auburn High School in Rockford.

“We want to reach out to high school students, both directly and through their teachers,” says Dhiman Chakraborty, an NIU physics professor and scientist.

With assistance from several other physicists and graduate students, Chakraborty heads up NIU’s QuarkNet effort. He also leads a five-member team of NIU physicists and graduate students participating in the Atlas project at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland.

“In future years, high school students will accompany their teachers and come to NIU to directly participate in hands-on training in experimental techniques,” he adds. “They will be introduced to state-of-the art equipment used in real groundbreaking experiments and trained by professional physicists at NIU, Argonne and Fermilab.”

Browne and one of his Amboy High School students participated in last summer’s QuarkNet institute, where they attended talks given by active researchers from Argonne and NIU. They also built a cosmic ray detector using a kit and instructions supplied by QuarkNet.

QuarkNet high school teachers receive stipends for their participation and travel expenses. Lead teachers, such as Gatz and Browne, also receive mini research grants and stipends for academic-year planning.

Participating schools receive equipment, such as detector kits, so they can continue experiments and data collection. QuarkNet teachers and students at hundreds of high schools across the country share data, ideas and exciting observations over the Internet and at annual multi-institution “masterclass” gatherings via live webcast.

“Our goal is to instill and cultivate among high school students an awareness and interest in science in general, and physics in particular,” Chakraborty says. “This is extremely important to the long-term future of this country. A quick look at world history is enough to see how essential scientific research is in ensuring a nation's strength and prosperity.”

More information about QuarkNet can be found online at

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