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July 22, 2005
Contact: Roger Martin, KU Center for Research, (785) 864-7239.

KU team receives $200K NSF grant to teach children about quarks


LAWRENCE -- University of Kansas physicists, designers, educators and writers have received nearly $200,000 in National Science Foundation funding to introduce schoolchildren to nature's tiniest building blocks, called quarks.

Alice Bean, KU professor of physics and astronomy, is heading the project, funded by the Kansas NSF EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) program. The funding will help the team build a Web site, create video animations and devise other educational materials for a touring show.

" We're trying to get kids interested in science," Bean says. "To produce a full-length animated video that ran 22 minutes would cost, on its own, $300,000. So we'll just be putting a little animation clip on the Web site."

Bean hopes the clip will capture the attention of a big public television station. Bean and personnel from KTWU, the Washburn University-based public TV station, will approach WGBH in Boston about a partnership.

" We want to try to stimulate the creation of a TV series," Bean says.

Bean says the Web site will contain entertaining educational materials for kids 7 to 11, the target audience for this effort.

Another part of the grant project will be a 45-minute show led by a facilitator working in museums and other settings with children and their families.

" That person will get groups to do activities, play games, see demonstrations and learn about quarks," Bean says. "We have funding to go to Kansas elementary schools to present the show in order to familiarize kids with the language of physics."

In the show, a character named Elly the Electron will explain how electricity works, for example.

Quarks are locked inside the nucleus of the atom. Protons and neutrons occupy nearly all the space in the nucleus. In turn, two kinds of quarks -- called up and down quarks -- make up protons and neutrons.

Quarks are tiny. If a person enlarged an atom until it stretched all the way from Kansas City to Chicago, the diameter of a quark inside the nucleus would be the same as the diameter of a pea.

In the animation the team has created, there are two up quarks, named Harold and Ushi, driving around with a down quark named Danny. Their sport utility vehicle is, of course, a proton.

" They go on an adventure and end up getting annihilated," says Bean.

That happens when they encounter an antiproton, which is being driven by some quarky bad guys who are mirror images of Harold, Ushi and Danny: two anti-up quarks and one anti-down quark.

But annihilation isn't the end. In both scientific experiments and in the animation, collisions like this lead to the creation of all six kinds of quarks that physicists have discovered. In addition to up and down, those include quarks named strange, charm, bottom and top.

The characters may be cartoons, Bean says, but what happens in the animation is scientifically accurate.

" This is one way we form top quarks at Fermilab," she says, referring to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, an atom smasher in Batavia, Ill., where Bean and her colleagues conduct their research.

Bean has enlisted Andrea Herstowski, KU assistant professor of design, and Richard Varney, associate professor of design, to do visuals. Varney and four design students already have created the characters and produced a three-minute animation.

David Ohle, a lecturer in English who teaches screenwriting, wrote the script for the animation.

In charge of education outreach are Teresa McDonald, director of education at the KU Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Institute; Philip Baringer, professor of physics; and Oather Strawderman, who teaches physics at Free State High School in Lawrence.

Carolyn Roy, courtesy assistant professor of applied behavioral science, and Project Explore Inc., in Overland Park, will assess the project's educational impacts.

Deb Haller, a Seattle-based creative production specialist, is also partnering on the project.

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