QuarkNet Receives $2.71 Million Grant from the National Science Foundation

Author: Gene Stowe

Notre Dame QuarkNet Center


Perhaps there is no better example of University of Notre Dame’s involvement in the Michiana educational community than with the success of the Notre Dame QuarkNet Center (NDQC).

Founded in 1999 by Notre Dame Physicist Randy Ruchti, this unique facility at 929 North Eddy Street has given local high school physics teachers and their students an opportunity to play key roles in designing parts of detectors for the world’s highest energy particle accelerators.

Now those teachers are giving back to the University. They were instrumental in securing a $2.71 million grant from the National Science Foundation on behalf of the University to provide support for 37 graduate students over the next five years while they serve as ambassadors for science in local pre-college classrooms.  The new program is called the Notre Dame extended Research Community (NDeRC).

The grant, called an NSF Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education Award, was initiated by 15 high school teachers who are active members of the Notre Dame QuarkNet Center, explained Tom Loughran, a professional specialist in the Physics Department and a South Bend Saint Joseph’s High School science research teacher, one of the half-dozen original QuarkNet teachers who remain active in the program. “Both the Physics Department’s open-ended invitation to high school teachers, and the securing of a grant of this size at the initiative of high school teachers,  is distinctive to Notre Dame, ” Loughran said. “I don’t know of another case like it.”

 For eight years the program has engaged teachers and students with a stimulating learning environment at the QuarkNet Center. Many of the over 100 high school students who have passed through the program have helped assemble scientific equipment for such high-profile experiments as the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, and Fermilab’s Tevatron near Chicago. Recently, they even helped build prototype instruments for the proposed International Linear Collider.  Many of the local students have gone to college to major in physics and then on to careers in science.

The Notre Dame QuarkNet Center  (NDQC) has since become a national model for involving teachers and high school students in high-energy physics projects. It is now directed by Beth Marchant, a QuarkNet national staff teacher.

Loughran, who earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a Ph.D. in philosophy both from Notre Dame, said the NSF grant will enable graduate students to lend their expertise in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (called STEM disciplines) to stimulate young minds and at the same time improve their communication and teaching so as to broadly prepare them for professional and scientific careers. Fellows will be drawn from both the colleges of science and engineering at Notre Dame. They will become involved in schools as far north as Stevensville, Michigan  and south as Bremen, Indiana; from Laporte in the west and to the east to Elkhart.

The 37 graduate fellows will work with teams of teachers in these local classrooms throughout the school year and even in summer programs. The ultimate goal is to give the fellows experience in working with young people, but also to give students a glimpse into the fellows’ areas of research.

One important aspect of the NSF grant that has gotten Loughran excited is creating a bond with the Robinson Community Learning Center, located in the same building complex on N. Eddy Street as the QuarkNet Center. Loughran said the grant will enable graduate students to enrich and add to the programs already offered at the Robinson center.

Under the NDeRC proposal, classroom activities will be designed flexibly, from introductory to advanced. The projects are based on research experiences which a limited number of high school students and teachers have already had at Notre Dame.  The NDeRC program will involve graduate students working with teachers and students in summer programs to find creative ways to enable many more teachers and students to participate in these projects. Professional development opportunities for teachers will be offered to introduce these projects to local teachers and find ways to tailor them to classroom needs.

Projects are drawn from research being conducted at Notre Dame in astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, robotics and computer science.

Local teachers and students will explore cosmic rays using detectors in their own classrooms.  They will have the opportunity to upload their data, analyze it using online tools, and post their results on the Internet.

Another opportunity being developed will give students a chance to analyze data from the Compact Muon Solonoid (CMS) detector and discuss their results with students from other schools in an online collaboration. This project will offer students an introduction to particle physics using data from collisions at the world’s highest energy accelerator.

Other students will have the opportunity to probe molecular structure using a traveling Scanning Tunneling Microscope in their own classrooms; this project will serve as an introduction to nanotechnology.

In a biotechnology project, students will isolate, amplify and analyze their own DNA using PCR and gel electrophoresis, techniques common both to the investigation of crime scenes and to the determination of patterns of human ancestry.

Astronomy projects include opportunities for students to learn to read the information contained in starlight, and in an introduction to spectroscopy.  Spectra from asteroids, stars and even active galaxies surrounding supermassive black holes halfway across the universe will be analyzed in local classrooms. Students will have the opportunity to see stunning images of these kinds of objects at Notre Dame’s Jordan Hall of Science Digital Visualization Theater.

In a robotics project, students will explore the capabilities of a variety of commercially available robots and then build and test a simple robot using a commercially available kit. Later, they will have the chance to see the work done at Notre Dame’s Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Laboratory (airolab).

A traveling, high-performance computer will be available to help students explore the power of simulation in contemporary science.  The need for grid computing will be made evident from jobs which students will select and run themselves.

Loughran wants to take these projects further by building on the successful e-Lab approach used by dozens of QuarkNet teachers nationally.

E-Labs are online research environments for high school students who are able to hold online conversations with graduate students serving as mentors. The Cosmic Ray e-Lab, for instance involves some 125 teachers nationally, including Loughran.  As a result of his contributions over the years, Loughran was made Education Program Leader for an NSF-sponsored program, Interactions in Understanding the Universe (I2U2.) He will help develop other e-Labs in association with a number of high-profile experiments such as the STAR detector at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the Brookhaven National Lab, in Long Island, New York, and at the Hanford LIGO ( Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) project in Richland,Washington.

NDeRC’s  co-principal investigators with Loughran are Anna Goussiou, Dan Karmgard, and Mitchell Wayne (PI) from the Notre Dame Physics Department, along with Douglas Thain from Notre Dame Computer Science and Engineering.