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“Like a Dream”: OUA Students Tour the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva

Students studying abroad at OU’s study center in Arezzo, Italy (OUA) had the opportunity of a lifetime earlier this month: following an OUA trip to Venice, they had the option to continue on to Geneva, Switzerland for a weekend visit and tour of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. CERN is well known internationally as the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, home of the Large Hadron Collider (the world’s most powerful particle accelerator) and the birthplace of the World Wide Web.

This inaugural OUA CERN visit was organized by OU mathematics Professor Justin Malestein, one of a number of faculty teaching in Arezzo for the fall 2018 “STEaM” semester, which combines STEM curriculum with arts and humanities courses related to Italian art, history and culture. “We have had great success with the STEM summer programs over the years so we decided to concentrate on a semester program,” explains OUA director Kirk Duclaux. “We have 47 students — all but eight are STEM students — which is our largest fall semester ever.” Though the majority of courses are standard math, physics and chemistry requirements, Duclaux notes that Italian culture is incorporated into lessons where possible — by studying the chemistry of wine and olive oil, for example. Because Geneva is cheap, one-hour flight from Venice, Duclaux hopes to make the CERN visit a regular part of the program.

The tour of CERN itself was enlightening for students, who were impressed by the research facility’s history, size and impact on technology and innovation. After viewing a film about the experiments and facilities at CERN, the group was given a tour of two buildings. “The first building housed the now-decommissioned synchrocyclotron, which was the first particle accelerator built at CERN in the 1950s,” notes Dr. Malestein. “We learned about its construction and operation and also about the first particle discovered by colliding beams of particles traveling at 80 percent the speed of light in the synchrocyclotron.”

The group then visited the magnet test facility, where they learned more about the Large Hadron Collider and were able to view parts of the magnetic dipoles and quadrupoles used in it. “We learned quite a lot about how the magnets in the particle accelerator worked and generally some of the engineering challenges in building and operating the LHC,” Malestein says. One particular challenge explored was the process of keeping the magnets cooled to a temperature of 1.9 Kelvin — close to absolute zero — a measure necessary when creating such a strong magnetic field.

“The whole tour felt like a dream,” said Lauren Deerdoff, a sophomore from Tulsa majoring in mechanical engineering. “We did a simulation that gave you the experience of being down in a tunnel with the particle accelerator. We also learned about how a particle accelerator works and what CERN is doing to further their technology. CERN opened my eyes to new possibilities that I didn’t even know existed for me.” Sophomore Arturo Alonso, an aerospace engineering major from Oklahoma City, expressed similar excitement about visiting CERN. “It’s crazy how we were in the facility where the Higgs Boson, World Wide Web and so many other revolutionary things were made and/or discovered,” he said.

After the tour finished in early afternoon, students were free to explore the city of Geneva, including Lake Geneva and the United Nations building. Some students even took the opportunity to visit other Swiss cities before heading back to Arezzo late Sunday. Though this year’s weekend didn’t include any other scheduled activities, Duclaux notes that next time, he’d like to set up a fondue dinner so the group can experience Swiss cuisine.

Students who spend a semester at OU in Arezzo experience a lot of unforgettable things — from sightseeing in Rome and Venice to traveling the beautiful Tuscan countryside. But for this scientifically inclined bunch, the visit to CERN left an especially lasting impression. “Touring CERN was such a surreal experience,” explained Patrick O’Connor Lynch, a sophomore chemical engineering major from Arlington, Texas. “You watch and read sci-fi stuff about particle accelerators and antimatter and think how futuristic it all is, but that is literally what CERN is doing right here, right now. This trip certainly reinforced my interest in engineering.”

Deerdoff too left Geneva with a renewed excitement for her major and future career. “CERN shows how physicists and engineers of different backgrounds and genders can work together to create something truly spectacular,” she said.

Interested in study abroad with OU in Arezzo? Visit our education abroad site to search programs and get started.

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