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Awestruck A Level Physics students embark on an epic journey to CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider

Our second year A Level Physics students commenced this academic year with a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Geneva, Switzerland to visit CERN. Before the visit, Dr Elizabeth Cunningham, particle and nuclear physics outreach manager at STFC, the research council that coordinates and manages the UK’s research and subscription with CERN, got in contact offering free resources to help the students get the most out of their visit to CERN both before they went, and upon their return.  

The three-day trip saw Lecturer Andy Mabey and Study Coach Ellie Gillis take the intrigued students to visit CERN, providing the unique opportunity to tour the Large Hadron Collider and see exhibitions alongside a schedule saturated with educational benefits.

During their visit to CERN, the students discovered how it is helping to answer some of the most fundamental questions such as; how did the universe begin? What are the basic building blocks of matter?

Scientific breakthroughs such as the discovery of the Higgs boson require experimental machines on the large scale, and the students gained an appreciation of the technical and engineering challenges that the multinational experimental collaborations at CERN face.

The UK has been a member of CERN since the organisation was founded in 1954.  Membership allows British researchers to take a wide variety of roles that contribute to CERN’s on-going success; from recently qualified technicians and university undergraduates gaining their first taste of working in an international environment to PhD students analysing experimental data and experienced engineers and physicists leading projects or representing their experimental collaborations.  

The students’ visit was led by a member of the CERN community who talked from personal experience about their contribution to CERN’s research programme. STFC’s Executive Chair, Professor Mark Thomson, said “The scale of the science and technology at CERN is awe-inspiring.  There is no doubt that seeing it at first hand, and meeting the people who work on the experiments, can influence young people’s future education and career choices.”

Outside of visiting CERN, students were also encouraged to soak up some Swiss culture as they explored Geneva’s Old Quarter, visited the History of Science Museum, hopped on a mini cruise around Lake Geneva, toured the waterfront and even visited an authentic Swiss restaurant.

Talking of the trip to CERN, lecturer, Andrew Mabey said: “At CERN, there are of course different teams in different locations doing different jobs and the students were able to see them all at work. The control rooms had big screens on the wall and the scientists are all sat at their at their desks wearing their headsets, it was an incredible sight for the students to see.

“There are also champagne bottles lined up along the wall as they open a bottle of champagne each time they make discoveries; so lots of empty champagne bottles on display decorated with things depicting what has been discovered, so that’s surreal and puts it into perspective.”

Study coach, Ellie Gillis added: “It all went so well, it was a really positive experience for the students and will be so good for them, especially those that are applying for university as they can add this experience to their personal statements and talk about what they saw.”  

Upon their return, the students simply couldn’t stop singing the praises of the trip, with one student commenting: “The trip was fantastic! It was very, very good! I can’t say that all of it was my favourite part but really all of it really was my favourite part to be honest. I thought it was really well designed, the perfect balance of learning and also relaxing, it was really good.

“We had free time to explore Switzerland so that was really cool. The restaurant we visited was great, it was a stereotypical Swiss restaurant which gave us an authentic Swiss experience. There was lots of cheese fondue and bread and we had a lovely musician with us during dinner who played a sort of Alps horn instrument and played the bells too.

“The CERN was really cool, it’s quite interactive, they take you around to different parts. They also actually explain the science behind it all to you; whether you understand it at that level or not is another thing but it was interesting to learn more about it. Even if you can’t understand it all yourself, you still have a good time seeing all the people there working.”

Another student exclaimed: “The lightshow at CERN I think was the best bit for me, it was amazing. It was incredible and so immersive. It was almost like you could see the inner workings of the Large Hadron Collider and it explained it all so well.”

Another added: “This was my first time abroad to somewhere outside of Spain. We did loads of stuff, all day each day we had activities to do. It was really good.

“The CERN was mind-blowing, it was just crazy how smart the people who work there are. We got taken all around in a minibus. We had to drive into France because the site is so big that it has to go into France. It’s like 27km, it’s really cool.”

For more information regarding our A Level Physics course, please click here.

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