September 6, 2002

C.U. Professors Explain Standard Model

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Do the names charm and strange mean anything to you? How about up and down? Top and bottom? To the students of New York State who will be taking the Regents exam, a statewide standardized test, the names of these six quarks, fundamental parts of the Standard Model, will become very familiar.

After the recent addition of a modern physics theory, the Standard Model, to the material covered on the N.Y. Regents Exam, high school teachers from around the state gathered at Cornell from July 15-19 to learn about the Standard Theory from the experts at the University.

Because the theory is relatively modern, compared to 300-year-old Newtonian physics, many high school physics teachers might not be familiar with it themselves, let alone have the ability to teach the new material to their students. This is where Cornell scientists came in.

“We thought we could do a service by teaching [them] about the Standard Model. We tried to give them an introduction to particle physics. It’s what we do here,” said Ahren Sadoff, research professor at Cornell’s Laboratory for Elementary Particle Physics (LEPP).

During the 5 1/2 day workshop, teachers attended luncheon lectures on the new material and developed lesson plans, laboratory exercises and games to make the learning process easier for high school students. The games created include “Quarkle: That quirky quark game!” and “Particle Scrabble,” where the goal is no longer to spell out words but to balance equations describing particle reactions in particle accelerators.

“We wanted to give [the teachers] hands-on activities to do with the students,” said Lora Hines, educational outreach coordinator at LEPP and organizer of the workshop.

Though the focus on the Standard Model was a major part of the workshop, there were other subjects given attention as well. These included planetary science and scale and measurement.

The theory of the Standard Model is two-fold. First, the Model explains the building blocks of matter. While protons and neutrons were once thought to be the smallest particles, it is now believed that there are even smaller particles called quarks that have the names of up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom. The Model also suggests the presence of particles of another fundamental particle, the lepton, which is a point-like particle. The electrons in an atom are leptons, while the protons and neutrons are made up of the up and down quarks.

Second, the Model seeks to combine the forces that govern the universe. These are the weak, strong, electromagnetic and gravitational forces. So far, the Model has been successful in unifying the electromagnetic and weak forces into the Electroweak Theory. The strong force, which holds quarks together, was then unified in the Standard Model with the Electroweak Theory.

“If you take out the Standard Model, then you’re mostly teaching stuff that’s about 300 years old. If you check out newspapers and magazines — and some kids do read those things — you see that a lot of the articles that relate to physics are dealing with particle physics,” said Andrew Telesca, a physics teacher at Johnson City High School and a contributor to the core curriculum, in a press release. “We needed something that was going to bring physics teaching in high schools into the 21st Century.”

Many scientists noted that although the Standard Model will be included on the Regents exam, this does not mean that the Model is a completed process, or that it is perfect.

“It is the best theory we have. We also know that it’s not quite correct. We know there are problems the Standard Model doesn’t answer but it works. Our experiments are consistent with its predictions,” Sadoff said.

Archived article by Elizabeth Donald