What do physicists exploring the fundamental particles that make up our universe have in common with doctors tracking down cases of COVID-19? Statistics! Both sift through massive amounts of data looking for patterns. Today, members of this not-so-improbable partnership are spreading the word about the power of statistics.
In collaboration with education specialists from the Brookhaven National Laboratory of the United States Department of Energy (DOE), a team of experimental particle physicists from New York University (NYU) and a pediatric infectious disease expert from Stony Brook University have shared their expertise in statistics and data with a team of innovative faculty. Teachers, in turn, turned what they learned into lesson plans for middle and high school students. To virtual event led by the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) on the evening of May 26, 2022, teams of teachers presented their projects to more than 70 online participants. This fall, lessons could find their way into classrooms, helping students appreciate the value and challenges of working with complex data.
“Teachers who have participated in this program really learn what a particle physicist does, and the issues and questions they have to deal with,” said Scott Bronson, K-12 teacher and student outreach manager. 12th year for Brookhaven Lab’s. Office of Educational Programs (OEP). “And they see how you can apply the same concepts to many other issues,” including all sorts of issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic — the effectiveness of vaccines, the likelihood of side effects, and the spread of different variants.
Awareness demonstrates the broad impact of research
This innovative program grew out of a grant proposal submitted by NYU scientists to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a project related to particle collisions at the large hadron collider (LHC) in Europe. When the LHC collides with very high-energy protons, sophisticated detectors track what happens so scientists can explore fundamental physics questions and look for signs of new particles. But the LHC produces far too much raw data to record everything, around a billion events per second.
“Our group is working on the ‘trigger’ of the LHC’s ATLAS experiment, the tools that select in real time about one in a hundred thousand LHC events that we store for physical analysis,” said NYU physicist Allen Mincer. The key is to design these tools to filter out irrelevant events and keep those that are most likely to lead to discoveries. “We use an assortment of techniques and statistical concepts to design, test and implement the trigger,” Mincer said.
Collaborating with teachers to show how these methods are relevant to other fields pursues another goal of the NSF grant – for the work to have an impact in fields beyond its specific scientific field.
“Underlying statistical ideas have a wide variety of applications, and this year we decided to focus our advocacy work on the application of statistics to issues related to the pandemic,” Mincer said.
Brookhaven Lab, with many physicists involved in research at ATLAS and strong connections with teachers through its educational programs, was a natural partner. So did MoMath, whose executive director and CEO, Cindy Lawrence, partnered with the lab for many years to host a Saturday math enrichment program that began long before MoMath opens in New York.
“Brookhaven Lab is well known for its scientific expertise, but it also has an amazing team dedicated to developing the next generation of scientists and researchers,” Lawrence said. “As a longtime Lab collaborator on student programs, I was thrilled to expand our partnership to include professionals from NYU and the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, and to focus on helping top educators integrate real-world research and statistics into their classrooms.
Addressing Social Justice and Public Health Issues
The NYU/Brookhaven Lab/MoMath team began experimenting with the program’s formula a few years ago.
In 2019, there was an outbreak of measles in Westchester County, NY. “There have been a lot of conversations around the [measles] vaccine,” Bronson said. “We believed that if people had an understanding of science and statistics, they would be able to make better decisions.
“We were also talking about criminal justice – how bias affects crime statistics, for example – and we thought if you showed this to math and science teachers and how it relates to justice and health public, wouldn’t that be a nice lesson? » ”
In 2020, they facilitated the program with physics teachers. Mincer shared information about the ATLAS detector and its triggers and challenged teachers to apply the statistical ideas.
“The collision room is how you choose the most interesting/relevant events for physical analysis,” explained Aleida Perez, supervisor of student research and citizen science programs for Brookhaven’s OEP. “Then we ask, ‘How would you take this lesson with this topic and talk to your students about probability and statistics?'”
The COVID pandemic had just begun and summer protests erupted across the country, sparked by the killing of black George Floyd by a police officer (now convicted of murder). So many teachers that year applied what they had learned to analyzing pandemic-related data (e.g., how do we rate the reliability of COVID tests?) and efforts to explain or educate people about the injustices in society, Perez said.
Panoply of topics related to the pandemic
This year, the team invited Sharon Nachmanan international pediatric infectious disease expert who helped conduct clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccines at the Renaissance School of Medicine, to add her expertise and help guide the application of statistical analysis to various aspects of the pandemic .
High school statistics, mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry and research teachers were invited to apply.
“Our attempt was to include different underrepresented districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island,” Perez said.
Applications were submitted by individual educators or groups of three, each in a different field.
“Twenty-four teachers attended a four-session program that included a lecture on statistics (by me) and a lecture on pandemics by Sharon,” explained NYU’s Mincer. “Teachers then worked in seven small groups to develop lesson plans for middle or high school students, with each group tackling a different topic related to the pandemic.”
As Nachman noted, “Teaching teachers is 100% the way to go!” It’s so important to teach students at this level how statistics can inform their understanding of science and counter misinformation, especially this year with all the misinformation about COVID.
A team of teachers asked students to follow a “zombie apocalypse” in different schools to learn how different types of illnesses (colds, flu, measles, chicken pox and COVID) are spread. Another looked at variations in the weight of a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder® to highlight how variability and sample size can affect results, extending the results to COVID case counts and other pandemic variables. They also used an analysis of the probability of finding an uncolored white M&M in a bag of M&M’s® candy to discuss rare but not impossible events – an idea related to the likelihood of side effects from the COVID vaccine.
“I liked seeing the groups and how they did different activities [for students with] different learning styles,” said Lilian Munguia, bilingual middle-life teacher at Central Islip Senior High School, at the May 26 event. She particularly liked an activity that asked pupils to share what appeared to be identical colorless fluids – later revealing, through a dramatic chemistry-induced color change, how many pupils had been “infected”.
“I think it would really intrigue the kids. It could be an entire study unit,” she said.
Lawrence of MoMath said, “It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm of the educators and the creativity they brought to the project. At MoMath, we believe that learning math and science begins with inspiration, and we hope these collaboratively developed lessons will serve to inspire the next generation for years to come.
Nachman, the infectious disease expert, remarked how impressive it was to hear teams of teachers from different disciplines bridge science and math.
“There have been so many interesting side presentations on what you’ve done – discussions on VAERS [the official database used to track vaccine side effects]what does a report mean and how is it interpreted, and most importantly [reports on side effects] explode in the media and [using statistics to determine] is it real or not real.
She suggested sharing the lessons with parent-teacher associations (PTAs) or local libraries, especially before next fall when COVID is likely to spike.
“Maybe some of the presentations here will help people think about vaccinating themselves and their children to help protect some of these children from missing school and parents missing work,” she said. .
NYU’s Mincer agreed, noting, “There’s still a lot of confusion out there.”
Bringing back the focus to the physics that sparked the programme, he said: ‘The study of the underlying constituents of matter and the forces between them is exciting because of the fundamental questions it addresses. But, as research in physics continually pushes the state of the art, this work also creates and refines tools that are useful in many other fields.
“Our partnership with teachers has allowed us to share with a wider audience both the enthusiasm of the field and the methods we can use to better understand the issues that affect us all.”
Brookhaven Lab’s educational programs also receive funding from the DOE Office of Science.
Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the largest supporter of basic physical science research in the United States and works to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit science.energy.gov.