Reaching out from the European school

10 November 2017

The CERN–JINR European School of High-Energy Physics marks 25 years of teaching advanced topics in particle physics.

Training and education have been among CERN’s core activities since the laboratory was founded. The CERN Convention of 1954 stated that these activities might include “promotion of contacts between, and interchange of, scientists…and the provision of advanced training for research workers”. It was in this spirit that the first residential schools of physics were organised by CERN in the early 1960s. Initially held in Switzerland, with a duration of one week, the schools soon evolved into two-week events that took place annually and rotated among CERN Member States.

Following discussions between the Directors-General of CERN and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Russia, it was agreed that CERN should organise the 1970 school in collaboration with JINR. The event was held in Finland, which at that time was not a Member State of either institution, and the CERN–JINR collaboration evolved into today’s annual CERN–JINR European Schools of High-Energy Physics (HEP). The European schools that began in 1993 (CERN Courier June 2013 p27) are held in a CERN Member State three years out of four, and in a JINR Member State one year out of four.

The target audience of the European schools is advanced PhD students in experimental HEP, preparing them for a career as research physicists. Around 100 students attend each event following a rigorous selection process. Those attending the 2017 school – the 25th in the series, held from 6 to 19 September in Évora, Portugal – were selected from more than 230 candidates, taking into account their potential to pursue a research career in experimental particle physics. The 100 successful students included 33 different nationalities and, reflecting an increasing trend over the past quarter century of the European schools, about a third were women.

The core programme of the schools continues to be particle-physics theory and phenomenology, including general topics such as the Standard Model, quantum chromodynamics and flavour physics, complemented by more specialised aspects such as heavy-ion physics, Higgs physics, neutrino physics and physics beyond the Standard Model. A course on practical statistics reflects the importance of this topic in modern HEP data analysis. The school also includes classes on cosmology, in light of the strong link between particle physics and astrophysical dark-matter research. Students are taught about the latest developments and prospects at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). They also hear from the Director-General of CERN and the director of JINR about the programmes and plans of the two organisations, which have links going back more than half a century. Thus, in addition to studying a wide spectrum of physics topics, the students are given a broad overview and outlook on particle-physics facilities and related issues.

The two-week residential programme includes a total of more than 30 plenary lectures of 90 minutes each, complemented by parallel discussion sessions involving six groups of about 17 students. Each group remains with the same discussion leader for the duration of the school, providing an environment where the students are comfortable to ask questions about the lectures and explore topics of interest in greater depth. The students are encouraged to discuss their own research work with each other and with the staff of the school during an after-dinner poster session. The lecturers are highly experienced experts in their fields, coming from many different countries in Europe and beyond, while the discussion leaders are highly active, but sometimes less-senior physicists.

New ingredient

A new ingredient in the school’s programme since 2014 is training in outreach for the general public. Making use of two 90 minute teaching slots, the students learn about communicating science to a general audience from two professional trainers who have a background in journalism with the BBC. The compulsory training sessions are complemented by optional one-on-one exercises that are very popular with the students. The exercises involve acting out a radio interview about a discovery of new physics at the LHC based on a fictitious scenario.

Building on what they have learnt in the science-communication training, the students from each discussion group collaborate in their “free time” to prepare an eight-minute talk on a particle-physics topic at a level understandable to the public. This is an exercise in teamwork as well as in outreach. The group needs to identify the specific aspects of the topic that they are going to address, develop a plan to make it interesting and relevant to a general audience, share the work of preparing the presentation between the team members, and agree who will give the talk on their behalf. The results of the collaborative group projects are presented in an after-dinner session that is video recorded. A jury made up of experienced science communicators judges the projects and gives feedback to each group. The topics addressed in the projects at the 2017 school in Portugal included the Standard Model, neutrinos, extra dimensions, and cosmology, with the prize for the best team effort going to a presentation on the Higgs boson illustrated with a “cookie-eating grandmother” field.

Equipping young researchers with good science-communication skills is considered important by the management of both CERN and JINR, and outreach training is greatly appreciated by most of the European school’s students. As a follow up, students are encouraged to make contact with the people responsible for outreach in their experimental collaborations or home institutes, with a view to participating in science-communication activities.

In addition to the outreach training, important public events are often held in the host country at the time of the school – benefitting from the presence of the leading scientists who are lecturing.  This is well illustrated by the 2017 edition, at which a public event at Évora University coincided with visits to the school by CERN Director-General Fabiola Gianotti, who gave a talk entitled “The Higgs particle and our life”, and JINR director Victor Matveev. The event was attended by numerous high-level representatives of Portuguese scientific institutes and universities, and also by the Portuguese minister of science, technology and higher education, Manuel Heitor. There was an audience of about 300, including high-school teachers, pupils and university students, with more following a live webcast.

Branching out

In addition to the annual schools that take place in Europe, CERN is involved in organising schools of HEP in Latin America (in odd-numbered years since 2001) and in the Asia-Pacific region (in even-numbered years since 2012). These schools have a similar core programme to the European ones, but with more emphasis on instrumentation and experimental techniques. This reflects the fact that there are fewer opportunities in some of the countries concerned for advanced training in these areas.

Although there is so far no specific teaching at the schools in Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region on communicating science to a general audience, education and outreach activities are often arranged in the host country around the time of the schools. For example, an important education and outreach programme was organised to coincide with the 2017 CERN–Latin-American School held from 8 to 21 March in Querétaro, Mexico. Here, several teachers from the CERN school gave short lecture courses or seminars to undergraduate students from Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro and the Juriquilla campus of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

A highlight of the outreach programme in Mexico was a large public event on 8 March, the arrivals day for students at the CERN school and, by coincidence, International Women’s Day. This included introductory talks by Fabiola Gianotti (recorded in advance and subtitled in Spanish) and by Julia Tagüeña Parga (in person), deputy director for scientific development in the Mexican national science and technology agency, CONACyT. These were followed by a lecture entitled “Einstein, black holes and gravitational waves” by Gabriela Gonzalez, spokesperson of the LIGO collaboration, attracting a capacity audience of about 400 people.

As is evident, the European schools of HEP have a long history and continue their primary mission of teaching HEP and related topics to young researchers. However, the programme continues to evolve, and it now includes some training in science communication that is becoming increasingly important in the CERN and JINR Member States. The success of the schools can be judged by an anonymous evaluation questionnaire in which the overall assessment is overwhelmingly positive, with about 60% of students in 2014–2017 giving the highest ranking of “excellent”.

In total, more than 3000 students have attended the schools, including the Latin-American schools since 2001 and the Asia–Europe–Pacific schools since 2012, as well as the European schools since 1993. All these schools are important ingredients in delivering CERN’s mission in education and outreach, and in supporting its policies of international co-operation and being open to geographical enlargement within and beyond Europe. They bring together participants and teachers of many different nationalities, and each school requires close collaboration between CERN, co-organisers such as JINR for the European schools, and colleagues from the host country. The schools may also link in with other aspects of CERN’s international relations. For example, the 2015 Latin-American school in Ecuador helped to pave the way for formal membership of Ecuadorian universities in the CMS experiment. Similarly, the 2011 European school and associated outreach activities in Bucharest marked steps towards Romania becoming a Member State of CERN.

The next European school will be held in Maratea, Italy, from 20 June to 3 July 2018, followed by an Asia–Europe–Pacific school in Quy Nhon, Vietnam, from 12 to 25 September 2018.

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