IceCube hosts 10-week virtual high school program with Marquette, SDSMT, WIPAC

Screenshots from four of the final projects from the 2020-2021 IceCube After School program.
Screenshots from four of the final projects from the 2020-2021 IceCube After School program.

Since 2013, the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC) has hosted afterschool internships at least once a year to provide high school students in the Madison area the opportunity to work on real-world physics experiments. Through the internship, participating students have been able to meet working astrophysicists, learn computer-programming skills, and contribute to data analysis and outreach efforts.

But with much of the world still shut down from COVID-19 at the end of last year, WIPAC decided to pivot online. The result was “IceCube After School,” a 10-week virtual interactive program for high school students interested in coding, design, and learning about science done with WIPAC’s IceCube Neutrino Observatory. Teaming up with IceCube collaborators at Marquette University and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, the WIPAC internship program recruited 38 students from high schools in the Madison, Milwaukee, and Rapid City areas.

The virtual format necessitated a restructuring of the typical WIPAC internship, which relied heavily on hands-on activities and experiments. That’s where Dr. Katey Shirey came in. A former PolarTREC educator with IceCube, Shirey had already done a similar virtual program in summer 2020 through the Upward Bound program at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, which has worked with IceCube for more than a decade. At WIPAC, Shirey was tasked with redesigning and teaching the IceCube After School program.

“Being in a pandemic meant that we had additional constraints and opportunities in the online environment,” she said. “I tried to create an opportunity in which students would do active creation online to solidify their IceCube learning. Knowing that we had a diversity of IceCube subject matter experts, we needed to have an open-ended project that would allow students to follow their own interests.”

The goals of IceCube After School were for students to learn about the IceCube Neutrino Observatory and cutting-edge astrophysical science affiliated with IceCube while also increasing their mastery of computer programming, culminating in the students’ final project: a coded communication tool (simulation, animation, or app) that accurately explains real IceCube science. In addition to learning computer programming principles, each week the students heard from an IceCube scientist about their pathway to science and the research projects they were working on. Through the guest talks, the students learned about neutrinos, cosmic rays, and other elements of IceCube science that they could incorporate in their final projects.

In mid-March, at the end of the 10-week program, the students presented their projects in a virtual showcase for family, teachers, and their former guest speakers.

“The final projects were amazing,” said Ellen Bechtol, outreach specialist at WIPAC who helped organize and run IceCube After School. “Participants pulled together their new knowledge about neutrino science, computer programming, and science communication. They pushed themselves out of their comfort zone to create something engaging and completely unique.”

Professor Xinhua Bai, the IceCube lead at SDSMT, was also impressed by the students’ final projects and the motivation and interest that they showed throughout the process. “It is amazing that these young students, despite how little they knew about IceCube at the beginning and the inconvenience caused by the pandemic, stayed with us for 10 weeks,” he said.

“Although the pandemic has been exceedingly challenging, it acted as a catalyst for us to join together and move things online, which allowed us to reach many more people than we normally do with our individual programs that are typically only open to local students,” said Professor Karen Andeen, the IceCube lead at Marquette. “I am very pleased with how it went.”

Shirey was also happy to hear that students felt the internship “filled a gap” in their lives created by the pandemic. In the program exit survey, one student said, “Definitely [the final project helped to deepen my understanding of IceCube and related astrophysics], as much of the physics was not exactly brought up in my physics course due to COVID, and it really helped me be able to find ways to define the parts of physics I did not know at all before. Ten weeks ago, I knew pretty much nothing about neutrinos and cosmic rays and IceCube. I also really enjoyed the internship.”

“I think overall it went well!” said Shirey. “As a fully remote experience, we offered a window into the lives of scientists and their development as students, as well as a window on the universe through IceCube. I’m so proud of all of the students and grateful for this opportunity.”