Students get a taste of the big and small of physics research

The School of Physics recently welcomed 24 secondary school students for its annual Work Experience program.

In the last 20 years we have seen many of these work experience students go on to become students at the University of Melbourne and then complete their PhD in astrophysics.

The Astrophysics Group has been running this program since its inception and in the last 4 years it has been sponsored by the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO).

Last year the Particle Physics Group joined the program, with the support of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terascale (CoEPP).

The program is primarily organised and supervised by research students with guest lectures from staff and administrative support from the School.

2015 Astrophysics Student Group
2015 Astrophysics Student Group
2015 Particle Physics Student Group
2015 Particle Physics Student Group

This year, there were 12 students in each of the astrophysics and the particle physics programs. The students were from a diverse range of backgrounds and cultures, with some coming from regional areas or interstate.

They attended talks, participated in labs and researched a topic to present to the School at the end of the week.

I had an amazing time, learnt a lot and definitely grew my interests for the topic. So thank you very much again to you and everyone else involved! Tom – Astrophysics

For the last three years, the Telescopes in Schools program has offered an observing night to all of the students and their families. This is a great opportunity for the parents to share a small aspect of their child's week with us and is always well received. The cloudy week didn't dampen the enthusiasm as we headed out on Thursday night to set up a telescope on the South Lawn. We captured a glimpse of Jupiter before the clouds grew too thick, but the bright Moon penetrated the clouds long enough for everyone to have a long look at the craters and even try their hand at astrophotography.

Observing night on the South Lawn
Observing night on the South Lawn

MONDAY

Particle Physics, the study of the smallest things in the universe and Astrophysics, the study of the largest things in the universe, might seem worlds apart in scale, but they actually overlap in many ways. So we started off the week with an overview of both areas that everyone attended, followed by a tour of the University and straight into a lab to find out how you identify something you can't actually see, like sub-atomic particles.

TUESDAY

The students made their own spectroscopes and explored how light is emitted from different sources – a great way of identifying stars and galaxies.

Spectroscopy Lab
Spectroscopy Lab

WEDNESDAY AND THURSDAY

Wednesday morning was a dark matter morning where the group explored this mysterious particle from the perspective of both an astrophysicist and a particle physicist.

From there the two groups diverged. The particle physics group learned to code in Python and toured the Melbourne University's main data centre where the Australia ATLAS computing facility resides, while the astrophysics group used sunspot data to determine the rotation time of the sun and explored galaxies to determine the age of the Universe.

Tour of the University Data centre
Tour of the University data centre
Visiting the roof of the David Caro building
Visiting the roof of the David Caro building

FRIDAY

The groups came back together on the Friday to listen to each other's presentations. Working in pairs with someone they had just barely met, the students did a fantastic job of collaborating together, sharing the workload and presenting their information in a clear and comprehensive manner.

This is a daunting task at any time, but add in a large lecture theatre and experts of the field sitting in the audience and asking questions at the end, and their efforts become even more impressive. To their utmost credit, the students took this incredible task on board and treated us to a morning of interesting talks on everything from space travel and pulsars to dark matter and neutrinos. We finished the morning with the presentation of a certificate and a pizza lunch.

Students presenting their talk
Students presenting their talk

For the final activity of the week, the entire group headed out to Scienceworks, where they were treated to a talk by Melbourne Planetarium Curator Dr Tanya Hill, and experienced the award winning Planetarium show, Starlight.

The astrophysics work experience was amazing! It was a really great program that I was privileged to get the opportunity to participate in. I learnt so much about not only this field of work but university life. This program definitely gave me an insight into my future career aspirations which I’m hoping to pursue. Hayley – Astrophysics

The aim of our program is to provide students with a small sample of what it is like to undertake an academic career. The students attended talks and were encourage to ask questions, they conducted labs, undertook some coding, researched a topic and presented their own talks to experts in the field. The students also collaborated with their colleagues, visited other facilities and have met a range of people with similar interests.

While this has just been a mere taste of what it’s like being employed at the University, we hope many of these students come back and join us for much longer after they finish year 12.

By Jacinta den Besten

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Jacinta Den Besten

+61 3 83445599