18 July 2017: Observing high energy physics experiments in Switzerland and France, Yale-NUS students learn more about the physical sciences

By Julian Low | Images provided by Dr Richard Breedon

During recess week in February 2017, 12 Yale-NUS and NUS students visited several laboratories within the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which is more commonly known as CERN, to learn more about experimental particle physics. CERN is a research organisation that operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world. It is based in Geneva, Switzerland, on the Franco-Swiss border.

Led by Dr Richard Breedon from the Division of Science at Yale-NUS College, the group consisted of nine Yale-NUS students and three NUS students. The field trip was the culmination of a half semester 2 modular credits (MC) course named ‘Survey of High Energy Physics Experiments’. Dr Breedon shared that the field trip enabled students to deepen their understanding of the goals and techniques of this particular field after studying about them in the previous six weeks.

“Having mastered the fundamentals, I thought the trip was a great educational experience for the students to see these experiments in real life. I also planned it in a way that the students would have the opportunity to meet and discuss particle physics with active scientists who come from all over the globe to participate in research at CERN. The pedagogical benefits and learning outcomes are overwhelmingly positive and, hopefully, it would further pique their interest in the physical sciences,” Dr Breedon said.

Over the course of the week, the students travelled back and forth between Switzerland and France to see various experiments and exhibits at CERN.

The group visited ‘Microcosm’, an exhibit that presents an overview of the CERN laboratory and its experiments. A highlight was a tour of CERN’s ‘Antimatter Factory’, where experiments on antimatter are conducted. They also crossed the border into France and visited the Control Centre of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is the largest and most powerful particle collider in the world.  A particle collider, or accelerator, propels charged particles close to the speed of light and contains them in beams. These beams are then used for a variety of research purposes.

The students were also able to visit the underground cavern site that houses the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) located in the small French commune of Cessy (pictured above). This particle detector is built around a huge solenoid magnet, which is able to generate a magnetic field about 100,000 times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field. The students also had the opportunity to engage in discussions with the physicists in the CMS control room.

Overall, the trip was an eye-opening experience for the students. Dr Breedon shared that a student mentioned that the trip had re-ignited his interest in physics and he was motivated to take up more physics-related courses next semester. Another said the trip had reaffirmed his interest in physical sciences and he was inspired to read up more on this field.

Students at Yale-NUS undergo a curriculum in which they learn critical skills and techniques from the arts, social sciences and sciences to approach and solve problems from many different angles. Courses are designed and taught by teams of academics across different disciplines to weave in common threads of inquiry, analysis and global perspectives throughout the curriculum. The College offers 14 majors such as Anthropology, Environmental Studies and Physical Sciences which are designed to ensure the right balance between maintaining the integrity of individual disciplines and adding the breadth of the Common Curriculum to the subject to augment the learning experience. This is one of the hallmark traits of the liberal arts education at Yale-NUS, where foundational and transversal skills are developed through interdisciplinary learning across subjects and cultures.