08 Jun HiSPARC: Studying Cosmic Rays in High School
Ever wondered about those mysterious roof boxes on top of the Nikhef building, across the street from Science Park’s main building? As you may know, it rarely snows in Amsterdam, so it is not where the scientists keep their skis. So what do these boxes contain and why are they on top of a building? Those simple, commercially available boxes are used for real science. They cannot only be found at Nikhef, but also on the roofs of high schools in the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom and are used to get high school kids excited about science. At the same time, they get some proper science done on cosmic rays. Read on to learn more about this cool project called HiSPARC (High School Project on Astrophysics Research with Cosmics).
What is HiSPARC?
The project was founded in 2003 at the Radboud University in Nijmegen and was originally named “Nijmegen Area High School Array” (NAHSA). The founders built a detection station for cosmic rays on the roof of their building and approached nearby high schools to do the same, to extend the detection network. The response from schools was great. Scientists in Amsterdam picked up the idea and took the initiative to go national: HiSPARC was born. Now about 100 schools in the Netherlands cooperate and the project even expanded to Denmark (three stations) and the United Kingdom (about 20 stations).
Since cosmic particle-rays detection provides information about processes in the universe that cannot be probed with the usual telescopes, the project is not only educational for high school students, but it is also of great significance for astrophysicists.
Build and Learn
Because of the many locations, HiSPARC covers the largest surface of all cosmic ray detectors in the world. Moreover, it is a great way for school kids to get in touch with real science. They build the detectors themselves, analyze the data and go to nearby universities to learn more about the importance of studying cosmic rays. This way, they see what university is really like, and how much fun (and frustration) you can have when doing research.
The ideas behind the project sound good, but does it work? It definitely seems like it does! The number of schools participating is still increasing and the students are positive. The high school kids find working with HiSPARC challenging, but also interesting. The mysterious feeling surrounding cosmic rays appeals to them. Being able to learn from information coming directly from space is more exciting than just reading about it in schoolbooks.
Teaching the teachers
Not only high school students get to learn, the teachers also benefit from the project. For them, it is an opportunity to stay in touch with research, so they can prepare and motivate their students for university. Furthermore, Nikhef and other science institutes provide courses for the teachers to keep up with modern science. This is important since they are required to teach according to the NiNa (new physics curriculum) program, which focusses on physics after the year 1900 (including exciting topics like quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity).
The engagement of the teachers goes even further. One day a week, eight high school teachers spend their day at Nikhef. Five of them do research and three of them work on the educational part of the HiSPARC project. I spoke with some of them, and they told me they love the opportunity and enjoy doing something different than teaching the same subjects year after year. Moreover, they think it helps them improve their practical sessions to become more in accordance with research methods used at universities. Some of them even said that every high school teacher should experience a project like HiSPARC, to be able to bring modern science into the classrooms.
I for sure would have liked experiments that were more exciting than sliding blocks down a hill. What do you think? Would you have liked to participate in HiSPARC? Or maybe you are one of the students who did? Let me know in the comments!
If you want to know why cosmic rays are so interesting, watch this short explanation by TED-Ed or leave your question below.