August 2009

Student Life

Students discover link between particle physics and the Canadian mining industry

By A. Giles and M.-A. Simard

Thinking of atom smashers and particle physics might bring to mind images of elderly absent-minded professors at some celebrated Swiss laboratory. You probably would not connect particle physics with a bunch of Canadian high school students and the city of Sudbury. But the three were brought together recently by Sudbury’s Mining Innovation, Rehabilitation and Applied Research Corporation (MIRARCO).

MIRARCO, a Sudbury-based not-for-profit mining research company, reaches out to high school students in northern Ontario through the EXTREME Virtual Reality Expo (EXVR). A twist on the traditional science fair, EXVR introduces students to the use of 3D modelling. The project, made possible by the local scientific community and Laurentian University, is supported by the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation. As high school students at École secondaire Macdonald-Cartier, we recently participated in this program.

The challenge at the Third Annual EXVR was to complete a research project on a subject related to Sudbury’s mining industry. Participants explored topics that spanned from mine shafts and environmental chemistry, to the topic of our project, particle physics.

You may wonder how particle physics relates to the Sudbury mining scene. The answer is that one of the world’s leading neutrino observatories, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNOLAB), lies deep in Creighton Mine, co-existing with one of Vale Inco’s major mining operations.

Our topic chosen, we started reading up on the subject and thinking of preliminary ideas that could be visualized using 3D models. Leading industry experts helped us with the modelling. A past winner of the competition, Julie Mongeau, provided technical support and mentorship. Obviously, we learned a lot. We presented our project to the public and a panel of scientific and mining experts. Their critique of our work greatly furthered our learning. At the end of the night, we were delighted to learn that we had won the competition. This success proved to be the beginning of a bigger journey.

More valuable than our victory was the opportunity we had to meet and interact with knowledgeable experts. During a question and answer session, we mentioned that we had never visited the SNOLAB. A week later, MIRARCO invited us for a tour of the underground laboratory. This was fantastic news for particle physics enthusiasts like us. Our windfall taught us that for youth entering the scientific community, it is important to jump on every available opportunity.

During our tour, we saw first-hand how heavily SNOLAB relies on its partnership with the mining industry. Two kilometres underground, miners blasting rock were working side-by-side with researchers running experiments that can only be conducted underground. With our hands-on learning, we got answers to questions we could not even conceive of before going underground. Back on the surface, SNOLAB researchers advised us on our topic. Most importantly, we were able to establish personal ties to the scientific community.

As first-place EXVR winners, we also won a trip to present our project with MIRARCO at the 7th Annual Canadian E-Learning Conference in Vancouver. This too, was an excellent learning and networking opportunity.

This project broadened our horizons and taught us a few key lessons. It is important to work hard to create something unique and not be afraid to reach out to experts. This insight will serve us well as we begin our engineering studies next year. We chose co-op programs for our post-secondary education, as certain skills can only be acquired through fieldwork. Our experience with the EXTREME VR EXPO demanded a lot of work and effort but it was an adventure well-worth taking.

Alex Giles and Marc-André Simard are recent graduates from École secondaire MacDonald-Cartier in Sudbury. Marc-André will enter a co-op program in September at the University of Waterloo to pursue studies in systems design engineering. Alex will begin studies in mechanical engineering at Laurentian University.

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