Feature Story | 12-Jul-2022

Statistics unlock secrets of particles, pandemics, and more

Particle hunters and disease specialists collaborate with educators and the Museum of Mathematics to teach teachers and students the value of statistics

DOE/Brookhaven National Laboratory

What do physicists exploring the fundamental particles that make up our universe and doctors tracking COVID-19 cases have in common? Statistics! Both sift through enormous amounts of data looking for patterns. Now members of this not-so-unlikely partnership are spreading the word about the power of statistics.

In collaboration with educational specialists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory, a team of experimental particle physicists at New York University (NYU) and a Stony Brook University pediatric infectious disease expert shared their statistical and data expertise with a team of innovative teachers. The teachers, in turn, transformed what they learned into lesson plans for middle and high school students. At a virtual event run by the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) the evening of May 26, 2022, teams of teachers presented their projects to more than 70 online attendees. This fall, the lessons may find their way into classrooms, helping students appreciate the value and challenges of working with complex data.  

“The teachers who participated in this program are really learning what a particle physicist does, the problems and questions that they have to deal with,” said Scott Bronson, manager of outreach to K-12 teachers and students for Brookhaven Lab’s Office of Educational Programs (OEP). “And they get to 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 how different variants spread.

Outreach demonstrates broad impacts of research

This innovative program grew out of a grant proposal submitted by the 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 protons at very high energy, sophisticated detectors track what happens so scientists can explore fundamental questions in physics and search for signs of new particles. But the LHC produces way too much raw data to record it all, about a billion events per second.

Our group works on the ‘trigger’ for the LHC’s ATLAS experiment—the tools that select in real-time the roughly one in a hundred thousand LHC events that we store for physics analysis,” said NYU physicist Allen Mincer. The key is to design these tools to screen out uninteresting events and keep those most likely to lead to discoveries. “We use an assortment of statistical techniques and concepts to design, test, and implement the trigger,” Mincer said.

Collaborating with teachers to show how these methods are relevant to other fields furthers another goal of the NSF grant—for the work to have impact on areas beyond its specific scientific domain.

“The underlying statistical ideas have a wide variety of applications, and this year we decided to focus our outreach work on applying statistics to pandemic related questions,” 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 was MoMath, whose Executive Director and CEO, Cindy Lawrence, has partnered with the Lab for many years to run a Saturday math enrichment program, which started well before MoMath opened its doors in New York City.

“Brookhaven Lab is well-known for its scientific expertise, but it also has a tremendous team devoted to developing the next generation of scientists and researchers,” Lawrence said. “As a longtime collaborator with the Lab on student programs, I was delighted to extend our partnership to include professionals from NYU and the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University—and to focus on helping top educators bring real-world research and statistics into their classrooms.”

Addressing issues of social justice and public health

The NYU/Brookhaven Lab/MoMath team began experimenting with the formula for the program a few years ago.

In 2019, there was a measles outbreak in Westchester County, NY. “There was lots of conversation around the [measles] vaccine,” Bronson said. “We thought, if people had an understanding of some science and statistics, they’d be able to make better decisions.

“We were talking about criminal justice, too—how biases affect crime statistics, for example—and thought, if you show this to math and science teachers and how it relates to justice and public health, wouldn’t that be a cool class?”

In 2020, they ran the program with physics teachers. Mincer shared information about the ATLAS detector and its triggers and challenged the teachers to apply the statistical ideas.

“The collision piece is how you pick the most interesting/relevant events for physics 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 started, and that summer protests erupted across the nation sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a police officer (now convicted of murder). So, many of the teachers that year applied what they’d learned to analyze data connected to the pandemic (for example, how do we evaluate the reliability of COVID testing?) and efforts to explain or make people aware of injustices in society, Perez said.

Panoply of pandemic topics

This year, the team invited Sharon Nachman, an international pediatric infectious disease expert who helped run clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccines at the Renaissance School of Medicine, to add her expertise and help steer the application of statistical analysis to various aspects of the pandemic.

High school teachers of statistics, math, physics, biology, chemistry, and research 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 by groups of three, each in a different subject area.

“Twenty-four teachers attended a four-session program that included a lecture on statistics (by me) and lecture on pandemics by Sharon,” NYU’s Mincer explained. “The teachers then worked in seven small groups to develop lesson plans for middle or high school students, each group addressing a different pandemic related topic.”

As Nachman noted, “Teaching the teachers is 100% the way to go! It is so important to teach students at this level about how statistics can inform their understanding of science and counteract misinformation, particularly this year with all misinformation about COVID.”

One team of teachers had students track a “zombie apocalypse” in different schools to learn how different types of diseases (colds, flu, measles, chickenpox, and COVID) spread. Another looked at variations in the weight of a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder® to point out how sample variability and sample size can affect results—extending the findings to COVID case numbers and other pandemic variables. They also used an analysis of the likelihood of finding an uncolored white M&M in a bag of M&M’s® candies to discuss events that are rare but not impossible—an idea related to the likelihood of COVID vaccine side effects.

“I enjoyed seeing the groups and how they made different activities [for students with] different learning styles,” said Lilian Munguia, a bilingual Living Environment teacher at Central Islip Senior High School, at the May 26 event. She particularly liked one activity instructing students to share what seemed like identical colorless fluids—later revealing through a dramatic chemistry-driven color change how many students had become “infected.”

“I think this would really intrigue the kids. It could be a whole entire unit of study,” she said.

MoMath’s Lawrence noted, “It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm of the educators and the creativity they brought to the project. At MoMath, we believe that math and science learning start with inspiration, and it is our hope that these collaboratively developed lessons will serve to inspire the next generation for years to come.”

Nachman, the infectious disease expert, remarked on how impressive it was to hear the teams of teachers from different disciplinary backgrounds bridge topics of science and math.

“There were so many interesting sidebar presentations to what you did—discussions about VAERS [the official database used to track vaccine side effects], what does a report mean and how does it get interpreted, and especially [reports on side effects] blowing up 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 at local libraries, particularly before the coming fall when COVID is likely to spike again.

“Maybe some of the presentations here will help people think about vaccinating themselves and their children to help protect some of those kids from missing school and parents missing work,” she said.

NYU’s Mincer agreed, noting, “There’s a lot of confusion out there still.”

Bringing the focus back to the physics that sparked the program, 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, since physics research continuously pushes the state of the art, this work also creates and refines tools that are of use in many other areas.

“Our partnership with teachers has allowed us to share with a broader audience both the excitement of the field and methods we can use to better understand issues that impact all of us.” 

Brookhaven Lab’s educational programs also receive funding from the DOE Office of Science.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit science.energy.gov.

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