December 2, 1999

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The Particle Adventure, the popular online tour of the inner workings of the atom, has been newly upgraded by its student designers and has a new Internet address at

The website, sponsored by the Physics Division of the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has won many awards and receives millions of hits annually. The latest version comes with a newly streamlined structure, a navigation system that's more user-friendly, and a look that's more professional -- but not overly slick, since students are the designers.


"What really makes it work is that students did it all," says Michael Barnett of Berkeley Lab's Physics Division, the Particle Adventure's project leader and one of its founders. "There is student artwork, student humor, even student text, although we did go back and forth to make sure it's accurate. The students created the organization that made sense to them."

The award-winning educational project, aimed at high school students, teachers, and general audiences interested in the basics of particle physics, was created at Berkeley Lab a decade ago by veteran physics teacher Andria Erzberger, working with Barnett and others. Starting with a daunting wall chart, the "Standard Model of Fundamental Particles and Interactions" produced in collaboration with the Contemporary Physics Education Project, Erzberger set out to make the material more appealing by designing an interactive website using then-cutting-edge hypercard technology.

"Students enjoy something new, something that's not well understood -- and especially anything to do with astrophysics and cosmology," says Erzberger, who as a 20-year veteran educator knows what it takes to draw youngsters to science. "They love areas in which you don't have all the answers," she says, unlike "the traditional way of teaching, where everything is carved in stone."

Charles Groom, a senior at Swarthmore College who is one of the designers of the newest iteration of the Particle Adventure, agrees wholeheartedly.

"I'm taking philosophy classes right now and it keeps coming up: what's the world made from?" Groom's fellow student at Swarthmore, Joshua Lewis, collaborated with him on the new Particle Adventure web version while both were working summers at Berkeley Lab.

The 1999 Particle Adventure is more linear than its predecessors, although users can choose their own paths through the 200-page site, traveling in all directions through hyperlinks. A navigation bar with folder-type menus has also been added to keep people from getting lost.

Following a brief history of particle physics, the Particle Adventure jumps head-on into the standard model of particle physics, currently the most robust theoretical understanding of the microworld. The site also covers experimental methods, such as particle detectors in giant accelerators, and finally questions yet to be answered.

The journey is filled with cartoons, animation, news of recent physics discoveries, quizzes, pop-up windows, and quotes -- for example, this one from renowned physicist Enrico Fermi: "If I could remember the names of these particles, I would have been a botanist!"

Indeed, a big part of the site's appeal is its reliance on humor, thanks to the talents of students such as Joshua Lewis, who runs a satire magazine at Swarthmore. The aim is to make the Particle Adventure as attractive as possible, a contrast to science websites that are heavy on text and light on fun.

Having a good time is not the chief goal, of course. A key and very unconventional premise is that particle physics can be taught along with, not after, other basic physics concepts.

"I believe in having a scientifically literate populace," Barnett says. "And teaching people endless details of science is not the best approach to do that. You need to first get them excited about science ... Learning particle physics is not necessarily an end in itself, but a means of learning all of physics."

The approach has worked amazingly well. "We imagined that a lot of people would use the website in schools, but we never anticipated the breath of the audience." He has been touched by the hundreds of e-mail messages that keep pouring in -- not just from students and teachers, but from such diverse types as judges, rock musicians, and even other particle physicists -- people in over a hundred countries so far. "We've heard from people in island nations of the Pacific."

The site receives millions of hits a year and has garnered almost two dozen major web awards from organizations such as the "Discovery Channel," "Best of the Web," USA Today, and Education World. Barnett has even been invited to this year's Nobel Prize ceremony and banquet; impressed by the Particle Adventure, the Nobel Foundation has asked him to collaborate on an electronic Nobel Museum.

For all this success, Barnett keeps the project and its subject matter in perspective. "One of the things the Particle Adventure tries to do is emphasize that we don't have all the answers," he says. "It tries to show how much we've learned, but also tells students, 'There are questions that you're going to have to answer."

In addition to volunteer efforts, the Particle Adventure is supported by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. In conjunction with the upgraded website, a CD-ROM entitled "The Quark Adventure" is being released -- a scaled-down version of the Particle Adventure itself. Intended mostly for exhibitions and educational settings, the disc includes an opening slide show.

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