Education program catalyzes identity in science

As part of a new integrated approach to outreach, education, and public engagement, CHESS has an exciting new initiative that achieves multiple broader impact objectives while simultaneously making our lab more inviting to visitors and partners.

This past semester an enthusiastic team of graduate students ignited public interest in accelerators and light sources by creating and presenting interactive exhibits that demystify synchrotron science.

Targeting accelerator-relevant ideas that sometimes challenge interpretation, they collaborated with staff experimenting, prototyping, designing, and finally constructing devices that harness and help elucidate the physics of: electric and magnetic fields, accelerated charged particles, ionized gases, light spectra, polarization, diffraction, and electromagnetic waves.  These creations will soon become integral to the visitor experience at our lab—offering non-scientists an illuminating gateway into an otherwise esoteric field.

To the delight of locals, the finished projects were debuted downtown at a special event, “Electrify”, as part of Ithaca’s Science Cabaret. A captivating performance by CHESS user Josue San Emetario featured fluorescent bulbs lit wirelessly, metals animated by unusual forces, and million-volt arcs of plasma. Afterward, the crowd mingled with our team among a sensory bouquet of physical phenomena. Jen Chu and Robin Bjorkquist made high frequency sparks that sang out musical notes, Howie Joress summoned “right hand rule” forces with Sparky the Rail Accelerator, Eve Vavagiakis ionized gas with “cosmic” microwaves, Jai Kwan Bae twisted an electron beam into a circle, Derek Crenshaw collected enough charged particles to seemingly defy gravity, and William Li accelerated—with electric fields alone—a conductive sphere around inside a bowl.

While effectively engaging the public in science—and specifically the science of our laboratory—this program’s central focus is actually on the graduate students themselves.  A world-class graduate curriculum involves more than rigorous research. Directly interacting with tools and materials to construct a working model re-invigorates a sense of real-world purpose while developing practical skills and building intuitions.  Collaborating with peers outside of the research environment stimulates new social network connections while cementing existing relationships. Interfacing with the public develops effective communication—promoting further refinement of student understanding.

Last but not least, establishing these meaningful connections between students and the community cultivates, for CHESS, a cohort of rising stars who are more likely to consider becoming the next generation of scientists at our laboratory.