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New York School Array - Introduction

Raising the academic and career ambitions of members of underrepresented and economically disadvantaged groups, and increasing their participation in scientific and technical fields, is a major challenge for the United States. It seems plausible that if more middle and high school students could experience hands-on involvement in real experiments, develop confidence in their ability to build and operate equipment, and along with their families become aware of the excitement of doing science, it could further these goals in many ways.

In most cases, it is difficult to implement such a strategy, let alone to test its validity, because of the very nature of most cutting-edge scientific experiments: the apparatus is seldom suitable for HS and MS students and their teachers to build and operate, and the experiments do not lend themselves to the large-scale deployment required to make a significant impact in a large school system such as New York City (and necessary for controlled studies of the project's impact). However, the detection of Ultra-High-Energy Cosmic Rays (UHECRs) provides an ideal vehicle for such an effort. Before explaining why this is so, we give some background information on UHECRs.

Ultra-High-Energy Cosmic Particles
As discovered in the 1930's, Earth is being constantly bombarded from every direction by cosmic rays. These cosmic rays are mainly composed of the constituents of the atomic nucleus, such as protons and neutrons. The highest energy cosmic rays have energies hundreds of millions times greater than can be produced in human-built accelerators on Earth. They are ejected in the most violent events in the Universe such as the gravitational collapse of dying stars and collision of black holes.

While UHECRs have almost unimaginably high energy when they hit the Earth's atmosphere, their energy is degraded by collisions with the nuclei of atoms of air as they travel through the atmosphere. These collisions create low energy protons and neutrons, as well as electrons, muons, and photons. By the time this cascade of particles reaches Earth's surface, most of the energy has been absorbed by the atmosphere and the remnant shower is composed of low energy muons, electrons, and photons. At sea level, the natural background level of radiation coming from cosmic rays is far lower than from other sources in our environment such as TV and medical x-rays.

Detection of High-Energy Cosmic Particles
The highest energy cosmic rays hit Earth only very rarely: approximately one per square kilometer each century! However, a shower from a UHECR is amazingly big -- it is composed of trillions of low energy particles which are spread out over an area several miles in diameter. These two facts explain the technique which is used to detect UHECRs and measure their properties: make a very large but sparse array of simple detectors to sample the shower.

By detecting the simultaneous arrival of particles at many detectors and sampling the spatial distribution of shower particles, one can recognize the the shower as a UHECR event by the extent of the shower, and determine the UHECR's energy and direction. Measuring these characteristics with sufficient accuracy will enable astronomy to be done in an entirely new way -- looking directly at the particles which are ejected in cosmic explosions. It should also be possible to infer the magnetic field of the cosmos, from the deflections of the cosmic rays as they propagate from their sources to Earth.

The probability of detecting rare UHECR events is increased by having an array of detectors with a very large area, and the quality of the measurement of their direction and energy is increased by increasing the density of detectors in the array. The optimal size is about the size of greater NYC (~ thousand square kilometers) and the ideal number of detectors is a few per square kilometer, making thousands in total for an area of this size. To be feasible, the individual detectors must be simple and economical to produce, and safe and robust so they can be left on rooftops to gather data unattended. Previous smaller scale experiments have demonstrated the technical feasibility of meeting these requirements.

Precision determination of the arrival times of the shower particles is necessary to determine accurately the direction of the primary cosmic ray; this can be accomplished by having a Global Positioning Sensor for each detector. Arrival time data from all detectors must be compared to identify the near-simultaneous arrival of particles at multiple detectors, which is the signature of a UHECR event. This comparison is accomplished by communicating data from individual detector installations to a central processor where the data is analyzed; the required communication can be done by internet a few times a day.

Proposed Detector in New York City Schools
The idea of the present proposal is to place detectors on the roofs of schools, thereby creating the New York Schools Cosmic Particle Telescope (NYSCPT). In addition, each school will have a second smaller and more portable detector which will be kept in a classroom, as well as a dedicated computer. With a pair of detectors in each school, many nice experiments using the copious "ordinary" cosmic rays can be done, which cover a range in difficulty and scientific level spanning from primary school to the most advanced Physics research courses offered in any NYC high school. The computers in the classrooms will be used to analyze data for these "internal" projects, analyze the data from the entire array, prepare reports on the students' experiments, and access scientific resources on the web.

The topics which can be related to this project in the classroom are very diverse and include not only the astrophysics and particle physics relating to cosmic rays, but also topics in biology (students could analyze the effects of the natural exposure to radiation, measure it for themselves, discuss its relevance to evolution and genetic change, ask themselves whether exposure to UHECRs present a danger to astronauts, etc), mathematics (statistics, probability, trigonometry, geometry, algebra, calculus...), computer science and programming (writing programs to analyze the data, preparing websites and presentations using PowerPoint, and using Mathematica and other scientific or technical software), chemistry and Earth and environmental sciences (studying the atmosphere, the Earth's magnetic field, the chemistry of ozone and how that might or might not affect the transmission of cosmic rays, etc).

Specifically, students participating in this project will get practical, hands-on experience in:

  • Making equipment work and troubleshooting problems;
  • Statistical analysis of data;
  • Estimating probabilities;
  • Using mathematics related to the experiments to predict experimental results, including trigonometry, algebra, geometry, and elementary calculus (when appropriate to the students background).
  • Writing reports on the research;
  • Preparing websites to introduce others to their research.
A crucial aspect of the program is that students will be encouraged to make changes to experimental setup to see how changes affect the number of cosmic rays being detected. For instance, moving the location of the classroom detector or trying to block the cosmic rays by placing absorbers between the rooftop and classroom detectors. Such inquiry-based exploration is a basic element of all science, and we believe it is fundamental to capturing the interest and exciting the imaginations of the students. Therefore, much of what is learned from the experience of this project will be applicable to the design of other projects centered on other scientific questions.

University Involvement
Faculty and staff of the Physics Departments of New York University, Columbia University, and Barnard College, the School of Education of NYU, and the Gateway Institute for Pre-college Education of the City University of New York, have joined together to submit to the National Science Foundation a proposal under the Math and Science Partnership solicitation to implement this idea. As detailed in the following pages, the project will have a number of parts:

  1. Pilot Project, Summer 2002 -- NYU will host a Summer Institute for teams consisting of one or more teachers and at least two students, from each of 10 participating schools. Each team will build a detector and learn about astrophysics and engineering related to the experiment. The teams will deploy and use their detectors in their schools in a variety of science and research classes during the 02-03 school year. The Summer Institute will be conducted from Aug. 9-23, 2002, and will be followed up with one or two mini-workshops for the team members during the 2002-03 academic year.
    This pilot project is being funded by NYU, Columbia, and private donations in order not to delay startup until after the MSP process. The experience thus gained will enable us to prepare for hurdles which may be encountered in building the detectors and deploying them in the schools, and to begin developing teaching materials for classroom use.
  2. Increasing the number of participating schools -- Teacher expertise will be propagated in subsequent years by having larger Institutes, and the Institutes may be on weekends during the school year rather than in the summer. At each stage, the number of expert teachers will be multiplied, by having expert teachers help train several teams of "novice" teachers and students. As a school becomes involved in the program for the first time, a team from that school will build the equipment to be used. We hope to eventually extend the program so that every public school, and as many private and parochial schools that wish to do so, can participate.
  3. Extending the scope of the project within schools -- Building a detector is an entirely feasible class project for a research class. These extra detectors can be placed at well-separated locations on the roof of an individual school, or located on the roof of a building within the community nearby, to enable a greater range of research-type projects involving higher energy events. Or, they can be given to a neighborhood elementary or middle school which would like to participate but cannot build the detector themselves. The proposal aims to provide the components needed to build a detector whenever there is a demand on the part of teachers, schools, and students for such extended research activities.
  4. Additional components to the program:
    • Teams of "troubleshooters", consisting of HS students and mentors (primarily undergraduate and graduate students and NYSCPT staff) will be constituted, to go to schools where there is a problem with a detector. These teams will work with students and teachers of the school to diagnose and fix the hardware or software problem. We believe that giving students the opportunity to have hands-on experience troubleshooting and fixing equipment will be an invaluable experience, empowering them to perceive themselves as capable of fixing things in their environment.
    • In connection to extending the program to elementary schools, high schools will be matched with elementary schools and HS students will mentor the younger students in doing the experiments and using the apparatus. We believe that this will raise the self-esteem of high school students and create an incentive for HS students to remain in school and participate actively in this program.
    • Our collaborators the NY Hall of Science and the American Museum of Natural History will develop exhibits highlighting the NYSCPT project and its scientific goals. These exhibits will include spark-chamber-type UHECR detectors, which actually display the tracks of the individual cosmic rays, as well as showing some of the spectacular images taken with telescopes of the astronomical systems thought to create the high energy cosmic rays. These exhibits will serve several functions:
      1. They will be a vehicle for introducing prospective teacher-participants to the science of UHECRs and give them the opportunity to speak with expert teachers, students, or NYSA staff about the practicalities of the project.
      2. They will be a very exciting way for teachers to introduce their students to the science of UHECRs, prior to embarking on in-class experiments.
      3. They will be a vehicle for students to share with their families what they are doing in school. To remove the financial impediment of participating, the entry fees will be waived for family members, and transportation vouchers can be provided.
    • Provide interested teachers with the opportunity to participate in a Research Institute, through which they can do original research in collaboration with members of the scientific team.
  5. Assessment of educational and social impact -- Thanks to the very large scale of the project, and its planned ~10 year duration, the impact of various interventions can be studied with adequate control groups and an unprecedented degree of statistical significance. One can hope to answer the following questions:
    • Does participation in the program have a measureable impact on students' performance, as measured by (for instance):
      1. Students' grade averages and grades on Regents exams.
      2. Students' attendance.
      3. Students' arrest probability.
      4. HS graduation probability.
      5. College entrance probability.
      6. Probability of choosing a scientific or engineering major in college.
      7. Probability of entering a scientific, engineering or other quantitative/analytic or technical profession.
    • Does stimulating family involvement increase the probability of a positive educational outcome?
    • Does teacher participation in the Research Institute have any measurable impact on:
      1. Success of that teacher's students in the various measures above.
      2. Likelihodd of that teacher continuing to teach in a NYC public school.
      3. Recruitment of persons with college or graduate science degrees to teach in NYC public schools.
    • What other variables in the teacher's experience have an impact on the above, e.g., participation in workshops with other teachers in the project, participation in developing the curriculum for this project, etc.
    • The list is virtually endless...