A few weeks ago, Nisha Shah, of Bartlett, had no idea the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory was practically in her backyard.
She learned about it from her 9-year-old son, Rajan, who saw Fermilab's Mr. Freeze do a liquid nitrogen demonstration at his school. It sparked his interest in science, and led the Shahs to Fermilab's family open house Sunday.
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The premier United States lab for particle physics research opens the doors to its Batavia facility annually to give families a chance to watch experiments and learn about them, talk to scientists, and tour parts of the facility.
"We had never heard of Fermilab before," Shah said. "It was nice to know that this was out here."
More than 2,000 people streamed through Fermilab's Wilson Hall Sunday, exploring science themes with hands-on activities demonstrating things like surface tension, Newton's laws of motion, gravity, polarization and buoyancy.
Families had the chance to meet Jim Hylen, a Fermilab physicist who helped design the beam that blasts neutrinos to Minnesota, where scientists measure them and learn more about the three different types of the tiny particles.
Heidi Schellman, another Ask-A-Scientist volunteer, explained the differences between particles like quarks, neutrinos and dark matter with small, decorated bean bags that helped participants easily distinguish among them, mostly by their relative weight. Schellman says she uses the toys when she teaches at Northwestern University, too.
"They're more interesting than charts of the fundamental particles," Schellman said.
Students from the Illinois Math and Science Academy joined high school students from Chicago, Naperville and Downers Grove running experiments for younger kids.
Spencer Pasero, Fermilab's education program leader, said the open house is designed for people of all ages but the hands-on activities are geared more specifically to students in grades three through eight. Pasero said many of the younger children really look up to the high schoolers, creating a mentor moment when younger students can watch their older peers excited about science.
"We try to make them see this is something they can do with their lives," Pasero said.