A new feature at the Lederman Science Center at Fermilab uses kids' energy to teach them about energy, mass and matter.
Tuesday, the center dedicated "Run Like a Proton," which mimics the laboratory's accelerator chain.
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The crushed limestone path was built to scale to depict the Tevatron, the Main Injector and the tunnels through which subatomic particles are sent for experiments.
When school groups visit the center, they are divided into protons and antiprotons, then sent running around the path. Some mimic the historic collision of protons and antiprotons, in the Tevatron, that led to Fermilab's discovery of the top and bottom quarks. For safety's sake, the kids don't run into each other; a high-five suffices for the moment of impact and annihilation.
Other times, they may be instructed to shoot off rings on to paths representing several current experiments, including the MINOS, which shoots neutrinos to a detector in a former mine in Minnesota. Education office manager Marge Bardeen said they will probably modify it in years to come to reflect the to-be-built Long Beam Neutrino Experiment.
"Run Like a Proton" will be used with students in middle and high schools, because they know what an atom is, Bardeen said.
It was paid for by an anonymous donor and a grant from the Kane County Riverboat Fund.
Bardeen hopes it is another step toward having a physics-oriented playground at the Lederman Science Center.
Originally, the science center was supposed to have two buildings, she said. The second wasn't built. They instead put a prairie schooner out back (for lessons about the prairie), and a human sundial.
When the Tevatron was shutting down for good in 2011, Bardeen thought a running path would be a good way to teach students about its history. Several school groups have used it this spring. "I can report that the kids absolutely love it. The kids have a better understanding" then of what goes on at the lab, when they take tours with docents, she said.
About 20,000 students visit the science center each year.
The center recently revamped several of its indoor exhibits. It is also adding outdoors exhibits related to energy. There is already a solar panel, and a plot of switch grass will be added to explain how biomass can provide energy. There is also consideration to install a wind turbine, and it would like to add play equipment such as coupled swings, that would demonstrate principles and laws of physics, such as oscillation and resonance.
"We've dreamed of a physics playground for 20 years," Bardeen said.
The science center is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.