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July 27, 2001

Seattle-area middle and high school students to take part in physics research

News and Information

Some Seattle-area middle school and high school students and their science teachers soon will be assisting University of Washington scientists in a major effort aimed at solving one of the most vexing puzzles in physics.

Eleven schools will install particle detectors, linked to each other using the Internet, as part of a large cosmic ray observatory. The project — called the Washington Area Large-scale Time-coincidence Array, or WALTA — aims to find out more about the highest-energy cosmic rays.

“Cosmic rays are subatomic particles that constantly rain down on Earth. They provide information on violent, high-energy processes in distant stars, allowing us to study fundamental particles and forces of nature under conditions far beyond the reach of man-made particle accelerators,” said R. Jeffrey Wilkes, a UW physics professor and expert in high-energy physics.

Cosmic rays likely originate outside our galaxy, and they can carry so much energy that a single proton is as powerful as a fastball hurled by Seattle Mariners pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki.

“But according to the laws of physics as we know them, such energetic particles shouldn’t exist,” Wilkes said. “The mystery of how such particles can exist is motivating intense effort among physics researchers today.”

Wilkes has organized a five-day workshop, starting Monday, in which science teachers from the 11 schools will learn the fundamentals of cosmic ray physics and will begin preparing portions of the detectors to be installed at their schools. Equipment supplied by UW physicists will include detector modules, which the teachers will refurbish, that have been salvaged from already completed physics research.

When a cosmic ray hits the Earth’s atmosphere, it interacts with atoms to create a shower of secondary particles that can number in the billions. The new particles continue traveling toward Earth and by the time they reach the surface they can have spread across an area as large as 60 square miles. If more than one cosmic ray hits at the same time, the detection area could be much greater. Such a shower will trigger detectors in the school network, which will download information at regular intervals to a UW data analysis center.

WALTA joins groups in California, Colorado, Nebraska and Alberta, Canada, that are gathering, sharing and assessing information on cosmic rays. Three more Canadian groups and one in Boston are in the process of forming.

Students and teachers at each school in the WALTA program will play an active role in the research, with the ability to analyze the data they are contributing as well as the data submitted by others. UW faculty and graduate students will work with teachers in developing classroom materials to integrate the cosmic ray research into the school’s curriculum.

“By engaging high school and middle school students in leading-edge scientific research, we promote greater interest in science among students,” Wilkes said.
The WALTA workshop is paid for by a grant to UW physics professor Toby Burnett from Quarknet, an outreach program of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill.

“Experience has shown that hands-on participation is the best way to engage students,” Burnett said, “and the continuing decline in enrollments in physical sciences on college campuses is a clear indication that we are not adequately communicating the excitement and rewards of science to young people.”


For more information, contact Wilkes at (206) 543-4232, (206) 200-3752 or

Participating schools are:
Liberty High School, Renton
Juanita High School, Kirkland
Skyline High School, Sammamish
Shorecrest High School, Shoreline
Lakeside School, Seattle
Redmond High School
Sammamish High School, Bellevue
Tolt Middle School, Carnation
Mercer Island High School
Tiger Mountain Community School, Issaquah
Puget Sound Adventist Academy, Kirkland