Across China: Teenagers explore cosmic mysteries through high-school installations

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BEIJING, Sept. 16 (Xinhua) -- One scorching summer day in August, a group of high-energy physicists installed a strange array of experimental equipment on the roof of a high-school in the eastern Chinese city of Taizhou.

The devices, including a plastic scintillator, a photoconductive detector and a photomultiplier, are not the ordinary sort of apparatus found in a school laboratory. They're capable of detecting cosmic rays from outer space, gathering data for an important frontier area of scientific research.

The tiny observatory installed at Jiangyan Middle School is part of a network called Campus Cosmic-ray Observation Collaboration (CCOC) that allows high-school and undergraduate students in China to understand the mysterious phenomenon of radiation from deep space. Research on such rays may help decode the origins of the universe, solar activities and the Earth's space environment.

He Huihai, who led a technical group for the project, is also a scientist working at the Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory (LHAASO), one of the country's key national science and technology infrastructure facilities.

LHAASO, which is under construction in southwest China's Sichuan Province, has already detected a dozen ultra-high-energy cosmic accelerators within the Milky Way, a find that could revolutionize our understanding of the galaxy.

Cosmic rays, along with neutrinos and gravitational waves, have become a new tool for physicists and astronomers to unravel the secrets of the universe. Now, young amateurs have started to join in.

The campus apparatus is a simplified version of LHAASO, constructed on identical principles, said He, a professor at the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in an interview with Xinhua.

He said that cosmic-ray detection is quite suitable for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education since it links minuscule particles with the infinite universe, and those cosmic events directly affect our solar system and planet.

On April 11, 2016, Beijing Dongzhimen Middle School, supported by IHEP, launched the first high-school cosmic-ray detector in China. In the following three years, a group of students from the school participated in the annual International Universe Day events, presenting their findings on how the intensity of the extensive atmospheric shower of cosmic rays changes with zenith angles.

He's team is working to bring more high schools in by making the project more accessible, both financially and technically.

The observatory at Dongzhimen cost about 500,000 yuan (72,145 U.S. dollars), a sum that is not affordable to some schools that lack the funding of those in Beijing, said He. However, they have managed to reduce costs by streamlining the technology. Now, schools can build such a facility with some 350,000 yuan.

One characteristic LHAASO component known as a Water Cherenkov Detector Array, which works to collect charged particles, has been replaced by water buckets.

Jiangyan school at Taizhou and Shijiazhuang No. 1 High School in north China's Hebei Province have already built their own facilities, and more schools are on the waiting list to join.

Also, the scientists have developed an Excel-based data processing program to help with the abstruse math usually employed in professional scientific research.

"The data we acquire, previously analyzed with calculus, are made to be processed with the geometry taught in the high school," said He. "Our aim is to arouse the scientific curiosity of teenagers, rather than making them stand in awe."

He and his group have devised a curriculum on cosmic rays so that students can design and conduct experiments using the facility on their own, and then verify their hypotheses through data analysis.

Although most of their findings have actually been discovered before multiple times within the scientific community, said He, the project is a good way to cultivate the scientific spirit and the desire for discovery among teenagers through frontier research that is not yet found in textbooks.

The project also enables students to make valuable finds of their own.

He cited solar activity, as an example. The solar magnetic field, solar flares and coronal mass ejections can cause havoc to the Earth by creating catastrophic space weather, but the space authorities have trouble detecting all signals from space, providing an opening for amateur detection to play its part.

Now, the scientists are trying to expand the network to create better collaboration. "Stations with a range of different longitudes, latitudes and elevations could bring about a more accurate observation for a single cosmic-ray event," said He.

Four observatories at Tibet University, Sun Yat-Sen University, Hebei Normal University and Southwest Jiaotong University are now part of the CCOC, according to He.

He is hoping to upgrade the collaborative network into a platform that may produce significant finds in the future. Enditem

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