Strengthening particle physics education in NSW schools

Shantha Liyanage, Christine Kourkoumelis and Sham Nair explain the genesis of the physics masterclass at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN), its format, and how it contributes to teaching physics in NSW schools. The masterclass concept is discussed as a blended inquiry-based teaching approach to incorporate multiple learning resources to engage learners.

Physics is a branch of science that explores the nature of energy and matter. Scientists who work in physics (physicists) seek answers to questions about the fundamental properties of our universe. They investigate phenomena such as forces, energy, motion, heat, light electricity and magnetism. The study of physics unravels many mysteries of our universe and enables us to answer fundamental questions about the complex physical world around, allowing us to generate exciting innovations.

CERN (the European Council for Nuclear Research) conducts particle physics research, and some of the largest experiments are ATLAS, Alice, CMS and LHCb. The World Wide Web (www) was invented at CERN and produced several Nobel laureates. The ATLAS detector, which records the results of particle collisions in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), weighs about 7,000 tonnes, almost the weight of the Eiffel Tower of 7,300 tonnes but about 13 times less than Sydney Harbour Bridge. ATLAS alone has over 3,000 researchers from over 180 universities across the world.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), started in 2008, is an underground structure (a circular tunnel) located between Switzerland and France. It has a circumference of 26.7 kilometres at a depth of 137.5 metres. This collider has about 6,500 large magnets and several accelerators that allow two high energy beams of particles to move in a circular path through the tunnel. These beams travel in opposite directions in separate beam pipes. Within these beams, the protons which eventually collide with each other are accelerated to almost the speed of light.

CERN: The standard model of particle physics (5 mins 2 secs) was produced as part of the CERN/ATLAS multimedia contest internship.

The four LHC experiments generate large amounts of data. When an experiment is underway, each of the two largest detectors at the LHC (ATLAS and CMS) generates more than 100 terabytes of data per second. Scientists use these large data to test new theories and verify scientific findings. CERN scientists are also engaged in sharing their findings and educating the public. One of the outreach programs offered by CERN is the physics masterclasses. Masterclasses format, which can also be used to teach several other subjects, is developed to help students and teachers to understand the research being conducted at CERN.

What are CERN masterclasses?

Physics masterclasses were originated in the UK in 1997 at the centenary of J.J. Thomson’s discovery of the electron (Johansson et al., 2007). CERN developed the International Masterclasses in 2005 as an initiative of the European Particle Physics Outreach Group (EPPOG) (Barlow, 2014, p23). CERN’s particle physics masterclasses have grown in stature and are utilised by many countries and organisations.

A combination of activities, including lectures, interactions with scientists, practicals and virtual visits, assist students and teachers in getting a deeper understanding of some aspects of research conducted at CERN and to become a scientist for the day. Students can ask questions, explore what is happening at CERN and perform data analysis under the guidance of CERN scientists. One of the salient features of a masterclass is to access data from the detector and analyse them to explore particles. These classes enhance students’ engagement in science and allow them to think deeply about the subject of physics. The interaction with CERN scientists brings a whole new dimension to learning physics from an authentic source.

What are CERN International Masterclasses (IMCs)?

CERN’s International Masterclass are special types of events organised by TU Dresden and Quarknet. The international masterclasses (IMCs) began in 2005 as an initiative of the European Particle Physics Outreach Group (EPPOG). Since then, EPPOG has become the International Particle Physics Outreach Group (IPPOG), and these international masterclasses have grown steadily beyond the initial group of IPPOG member countries.

In 2018, these masterclasses attracted more than 13,000 students from 52 countries, with 177 universities taking part each year. Through video conferencing, students from different countries get together at the end of the day to discuss the results of their interactive analysis using events from ATLAS, CMS, or ALICE experiments. Two physicists moderated the video conference at CERN, or Fermilab (a large high energy physics laboratory in the USA).

The educational goals for students participating in these international masterclasses are to:

  • facilitate them to become scientists for a day and simulate the work done by researchers working at the LHC experiments
  • visualise the collision of ultra-energy protons and study the collision products
  • describe and demonstrate the conservation laws, the behaviour of particles in a magnetic field and how the energy-mass conversion applies to particle physics
  • explain what a general-purpose collider detector is and understand the various subsystems in a detector and what they are designed to measure
  • introduce the Standard Model of particle physics and how it classifies elementary particles and forces
  • identify specific particles and particle decays by the signatures they leave in the detector
  • give examples of how short-lived particles can decay into different types of particles, such as bosons, mesons, leptons and photons
  • give examples of the conservation of lepton number and charge in particle decays
  • provide a learning environment to appreciate the study of physics and relevance to real life situations.

If students and teachers are interested in IMC, they can register their interest with CERN.

The process of conducting masterclasses

Some prior knowledge or understanding of particle physics is desirable. Masterclasses can be adapted to learners of different ages to provide an appreciation of these experiments, as long as these classes are conducted in collaboration with CERN scientists. Some basic knowledge of Rutherford’s experiment in discovering the nucleus of the atom or other key experiments, ways of discovering particles by identifying peaks in a histogram and being able to explain what it means, describing how quarks combine to form mesons and bosons and applying conservation rules to measurements to provide evidence for unobserved particles is useful.

Figure 1 shows a massive number of particles are generated in each collision and students can study some of these particles in order to detect electrons, muons and photons.

high energy collision Figure 1. CMS: High-energy collision at 7 TeV. CMS Masterclasses, 2016

During these masterclasses, lectures from scientists provide insight into the research that investigates the fundamentals of matter and forces.

The ATLAS experiment has two different educational scenarios used for the IMC — the Z-path and the W-path.

In the Z-path, the students use the HYPATIA visualisation program to reconstruct invariant masses of the parent particles, which they identify using the signatures of their decay products in the sub-detectors. The aim is to reconstruct leptonic decays of the Z boson and other known lighter particles and ‘discover’ the Higgs boson, through its four lepton decays or the two-photon decays.

In the W-path, the students study the structure of protons by taking ratios of positively charged to negatively charged W boson decays to leptons plus a neutrino. Subsequently, they also try to ‘discover’ the Higgs boson through its decay to a pair of W bosons when both Ws decay to a lepton and a neutrino.

The HYPATIA team has developed a ‘lighter’ version of the ATLAS visualisation tool. It retains all the necessary functionality for the masterclasses but displays event samples in a simpler format which does not require the download or installation of any software. The data can be analysed using any device, including mobile phones and tablets. This is the online version of HYPATIA and is the version that the Australian masterclasses have been using.

The on-line HYPATIA has been developed in the framework of several EU outreach programs and has been awarded the 2016 prize for the best visualisation lab (Figure 2 shows a screenshot of the tool).

Hypatia toolFigure 2. Screenshot of the use of Hypatia tool in masterclasses

It takes only about half a day to conduct a masterclass that consists of an introductory lecture, detailed instructions about the project, an online data analysis session and a virtual visit (see below) to one of the LHC experiments. In the last eight years, masterclasses have been successfully conducted in a large (~100) number of Greek schools (urban, suburban and rural schools). Several e-masterclasses were conducted virtually, through video connections to researchers at universities or research centres. Under the guidance of these researchers, teachers analysed the real ATLAS events at their schools.

Australia’s experience in running physics masterclasses

Since 2012, CERN masterclasses were conducted in Australia by the ARC Centre for Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terascale (CoEPP) at Melbourne University. These programs were tailored to high school students who visited the University for classes.

The particle physics masterclasses provided students with the opportunity to:

  • interact with working scientists at the forefront of their field
  • improve students’ knowledge and understanding of physics
  • experience real scientific work by analysing actual ATLAS data
  • improve students’ skills in scientific data analysis
  • understand the principles that allow scientists to draw conclusions and new insights from data
  • meet syllabus outcomes in a meaningful way through participating in a cutting-edge real-world context.

With the involvement of Research, Business Systems and Distant Learning program in the NSW Department of Education, a modified version of CERN masterclass was launched for the first time in 2014 at the Parkes High School in NSW. This masterclass was organised as part of the xsel’ - Virtual Selective High School Provision of the department. Initially, ten schools from the Parkes and Dubbo region participated in this program. Students were connected to CERN’s control room in Geneva. The students were given a firsthand experience of the operations of control rooms and were able to interact with the researchers. The researchers explained to students the process of operations in the control room, data collection, purification, and analysis of data to verify scientific findings.

Subsequently, the department collaborated with CoEPP to run masterclasses for NSW schools using CoEPP expertise. This was the first time a full-scale masterclass was delivered to rural and remote schools in NSW. It involved about 22 students in Years 10 and 11. During this masterclass, CoEPP was able to provide the software necessary to analyse data from the ATLAS detector. Students were given lectures and were guided to analyse data provided by the CERN experiments. The staff from Melbourne University and Sydney University were involved in this project. Table 1 shows the participating schools in this masterclass organised jointly by department and CoEPP.

Table 1

Subsequently, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was developed to establish a formal relationship among CoEPP, IPPOG and CERN. This relationship also led to the development of online resources for students as preparatory reading for the masterclasses. This resource (Figure 3) was fully developed and is now available at the department’s websites, through Scootle and Equella.

physics masterclass
Figure 3. Particle physics masterclass, Scootle, NSW DoE

Future of Australian masterclasses

The concept of a masterclass can be traced back to conducting music master classes and also to the German system of learning through master craftsmen. Music masterclass will be given by an expert musician to a group of talented music students to perfect their knowledge and skills. Masterclass is a successful, innovative learning and mentoring method which is usually conducted or organised by experts in the field.

Different masterclasses can have unique learning experiences. For example, CERN masterclasses provide real-time data and analytics tools to interact with CERN experts in the learning process. In this way students will have a real life experience of learning by interacting with masters or experts in the field. Similarly, Aurora College provides masterclasses across a range of subjects. These subject experts include engineers, psychologists, criminologists, agronomists, botanists, actors, lawyers, economists and librarians.

Connection to curriculum and assessment

The main challenge for our schools, teachers and students is to link their classes and curriculum to carefully integrated masterclass formats. This is not always an easy task and requires careful structuring of learning. Teachers need to have innovative teaching approaches to integrate masterclass content to the existing curriculum areas while making a masterclass format a novel inquiry based learning process.

Taking up the challenge

Teachers must be enthusiastic and prepared to take up a masterclass challenge. Conducting a masterclass requires a mindset that involves collaboration with various experts outside the school. Teachers also require guided professional development to learn how to run an effective masterclass. A key ingredient for successfully organising and running a masterclass is the interest of a teacher to organise these activities with the help of the department’s staff. Currently, Secondary Education and Business Systems have organised the masterclass concept to a certain level of development, and it requires:

  1. Explicit recognition by senior management on the value of connection to a lead research organisation such as CERN, and the value of masterclass as a blended learning activity.
  2. Developing a sustainable program to provide masterclasses using a workable system such as Aurora and Distant learning network.
  3. Developing mechanisms for teachers to request running masterclasses at a particular time as the connection to CERN will have to be made at a time convenient to CERN staff, and to Sydney University and University of Melbourne staff who have been involved in masterclasses.
  4. Utilising already available resources such as CERN virtual visits to provide general science education to all children.

In June 2017, a virtual visit organised by the department for selected schools was concluded successfully. One of the teachers wrote:

‘Thank you to your team for making this opportunity available - my boys were amazed and excited! I have one in particular who dreams of working at CERN, and they rushed back from school sport to be here, soaking wet but so excited ... Tejas, who has the big dreams, waits to hear from Steven because he asked a very unexpected question (he does that to me regularly! but I encourage it). This afternoon is very precious to encourage students like this who have aspirations and go beyond the syllabus. So, a masterclasses was mentioned, and my boys are asking when can they do it, where, and basically just want in!’. Head Teacher Science, Normanhurst High School, NSW

Developing teacher capabilities

Future development work needs to focus on some of the following work:

  • Developing teacher training packages in the form of tailored resources and professional development so that teachers can become the masterclass tutors. CoEPP or a University partner could run the teacher training program.
  • Developing collaborative links with CERN staff is critical and it is important to cultivate positive relationship.
  • Developing appropriate resources in conjunction with the department, CERN and IPPOG. Teachers would need to be trained in the installation and operation of HYPATIA software, data analysis and the interpretation of results.
  • Developing specific masterclass resources for Australian students (by both DoE and CoEPP), including background reading material, classroom exercises, and other resources on relevant science concepts.
  • Working with science teachers’ associations and identifying teachers who are keen to try new ways of physics teaching and connection with research organisations, such as CERN and other physics communities.
  • Aligning masterclasses with classroom teaching, learning and assessment.

Continuous innovations are necessary to streamline the content and provide more rigorous support for the professional development of teachers. Given the improvement to the delivery, content and style of conducting masterclasses, these resources could become part of physics education in Australian high schools. The underlying pedagogies of the masterclasses may enhance deep content knowledge in physics, student motivation, and promote self-directed learning and critical thinking.

Teachers who are interested in running CERN particle physics masterclasses may contact S. Nair (

References and further reading

Barlow, R. (2014). How the particle physics masterclasses began. CERN Courier, 22 January 2014.

CERN/ATLAS. (2010).CERN: The standard model of particle physics. Best of Science.

Johansson, K.E., Kobel, M., Hillebrand, D., Engeln, K. and Euler, M. (2007). 'European particle physics masterclasses make students into scientists for a day'. Physics Education, 42(6), 636-644.

Physics Stage 6 syllabus. © NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales, 2017.

State of NSW, Department of Education. (2017). Particle physics masterclass.

How to cite this article – Liyanage, S., Kourkoumelis, C. & Nair, S. (2019). Strengthening particle physics education in NSW schools. Scan, 38(4).

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