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ORAU Workshop Connects High School Physics Teachers with ORNL's Spallation Neutron Source

June 11, 2009

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) Physicist Yan Zhang

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) Physicist Yan Zhang (pictured far right) is demonstrating for a group of high school physics teachers how to measure the resonant frequency of a linear accelerator cavity, a simplified version of the cavities used within ORNL's Spallation Neutron Source (SNS). The teachers, pictured from left to right, include Peggy Bertrand of Oak Ridge High School, Bennett Adkinson of the Tennessee Governor's Academy and Carmen Barrera of Anderson County High School. The three were part of a larger group of educators who participated in the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) Center for Science Education three-day workshop—SNS to the Classroom.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn.—Engaging in authentic research changes the way teachers educate their students. That was the premise of a pilot workshop hosted by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) this past week where seven high school physics teachers were introduced to the world's most powerful pulsed neutron source—the accelerator-driven Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

The three-day workshop-SNS to the Classroom-was hosted at ORAU's Center for Science Education and served as an important milestone for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) contractor.

“As a university consortium and through our management of DOE's Oak Ridge Institute for Science Education, our mission has always been to enhance science and technology education by bridging the gap between academia and laboratory research communities,” said ORAU Director of Science Education Programs Wayne Stevenson. “The SNS to the Classroom workshop is certainly significant to this objective because it creates the opportunity for genuine, one-on-one interaction between laboratory researchers and the teachers who are working the frontlines of our high school classrooms.”

ORNL Physicist Sarah Cousineau was one of four researchers from the lab's accelerator physics group who helped develop the workshop. In speaking to the attending teachers, she emphasized the critical role each of them plays in ensuring the next generation of scientists.

“A good experience in physics class can help students decide whether or not to pursue a physics career in the future,” said Cousineau. “They may not leave your class knowing they want to become a physicist, but at least they won't be afraid to take physics courses in college. A bad experience could turn them off to the subject forever.”

During the workshop, the teachers received a brief background on ORNL's neutron scattering research, learned the fundamental principles of how particles are accelerated in the SNS linear accelerator, performed measurements on a sample accelerating cavity, and traveled to ORNL for a guided tour of the SNS.

“Although I knew, more or less, what the SNS did, I realize now that my prior understanding was very vague. I have a much better idea now of how the various parts of the SNS work and fit together to produce neutrons,” said Peggy Bertrand, an AP physics teacher at Oak Ridge High School who participated in the SNS to the Classroom workshop. “The hands-on demonstrations with the 'pillbox' cavity were especially valuable because they helped me visualize what happens in the accelerator and will enable me to extend the concepts of resonance and standing waves to electromagnetic waves when I teach my students next year. I hope to be able to integrate many of the concepts I learned at the workshop in my classroom next year as part of the background material for various units.”

Using real data from the accelerator, the teachers will go on to conduct a simulated research project, and over the next few weeks, will regroup through several Web conferences to share and discuss their results. Ultimately, ORAU and ORNL will assist the participating teachers with integrating what they have learned into their curriculum.

ORAU provides innovative scientific and technical solutions to advance national priorities in science, education, security and health. Through specialized teams of experts, unique laboratory capabilities and access to a consortium of more than 100 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local and commercial customers to advance national priorities and serve the public interest. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

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