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SA schools’ team wins CERN competition

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Students from two South African schools – St Johns College and Barnato Park High School – has won CERN’s 2015 beamline for schools competition. 

The “Accelerating Africa” team shares the honour with the “Leo4G” team from Liceo Scientifico Leonardo da Vinci School in Florence, Italy. The two teams were selected from 119 teams from around the world, adding up to about 1 050 high-school students.

The aim of the beamline for schools competition is to make a fully equipped beamline available for high-school students to run an experiment in the same way that researchers do at the Large Hadron Collider and other CERN facilities.

In proposals of fewer than 1000 words, teams had to explain why they wanted to come to CERN, what they hoped to take away from the experience and give initial thoughts on how they would use the particle beam for their experiment. They also had to summarize their written proposal in a creative and entertaining video.

When the competition closed at the end of March, 119 proposals had been submitted. Teams of CERN scientists then evaluated proposals based on creativity, motivation, feasibility and scientific method. After two rounds of evaluation, 13 teams2 were highly commended and put forward for final selection by an official CERN committee that assigns beam time to experiments. The committee chose two winning teams, both of which have been invited to CERN to carry out their experiments together.

“Accelerating Africa” is a collaboration of students from St John’s College and Barnato Park High School and comprises 10 students. Their project is inspired by 2015 being named the International Year of Light by the United Nations, and involves producing high-energy gamma rays using a crystalline undulator.

“I now have an idea what it must feel like to receive a phone call from Stockholm. Learning the news that we were joint winners of the CERN Beam Line for Schools Competition will be an experience I will always remember,” says Colleen Henning, teacher at St John’s College. “We are all incredibly grateful to CERN for this opportunity for ourselves and our country. We hope that winning this competition will encourage science students in South Africa to believe in themselves and know that anything is possible. We are looking forward to carrying out our experiment at CERN.”

“Leo4G” is a team of 19 students from Liceo Scientifico Leonardo da Vinci school, 10 of whom will travel to CERN. Their project involves using and calibrating a particle detector built from common and low-cost materials, namely a customised web-cam. To prepare their proposal, they got in touch with their local physics research centre and visited a linear particle accelerator in the INFN section of the University of Florence.

The first beamline for schools competition was launched to coincide with CERN’s 60th anniversary last year. In September 2014, two teams, comprising students from Athens, Greece and from Nijmegen in the Netherlands, worked together on the CERN beamline. For this year’s competition, two support scientists have been preparing facilities since February in order to implement the experiments of the winning teams. They will help implement the experiments of the winning teams when they visit CERN for their allocated beam time in September.

“We are thrilled to be able to offer this experience to high-school students, thanks to support via the CERN & Society Foundation,” says Markus Joos, co-ordinator of this year’s initiative. “We hope for continued support to be able to make this a regular competition so that more students can get the chance to experience real science.”