Bentley students travel to world's largest physics lab in Switzerland
By Lou Fancher
Sometimes, soul trumps science.
A 12-day trip in February by 20 Bentley Upper School students to Switzerland and CERN, the largest physics laboratory in the world, was an experiment yielding remarkable results.
Aimed with the precision of a scientist searching for the antimatter equivalent of hydrogen, the students, led by science teacher Julie Spector-Sprague, sought knowledge in modern physics and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
Students in the two-week mini-term experiential-learning class returned struck as much by the power of simple human interactions and language as by colliding particles, magnetic fields, or even microrobots performing advanced medical procedures.
The trip included visits to the home and birthplace, respectively, of philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau, expanding students' awareness as much as their intellect.
"I discovered that despite stereotypes, we're all just people, experiencing the world," said Emily Kronick, 18, from Walnut Creek.
"I learned how people in the Protestant Reformation and particle physicists are the same," said 15-year-old Aarti Jain, from Hercules. "They thought differently from what others were thinking. Applying that, it's going with your own ideas, even if others push against it. You just have to do what you want to do."
Toby Watters, 17, said conversations had altered his perspective on things he had previously thought or learned.
"I was fascinated by how every new robotic tool we make replaces a part of our body, and soon, something that doesn't require air or food to survive will be made and will replace us. I didn't used to believe that."
And buying pizza from a French-speaking woman as an English-speaking customer, he used the little Spanish they had in common to bridge what at first seemed an insurmountable barrier.
"That was the first time I used language that way," he said.
Most profound, a realization from Martinez resident Lucy Holt, 16, who said, "In a different setting, it's humbling. You're getting away from what you know, and yet you're still you."
Michael Rubsamen, 16, from Alamo, gained respect for language. Bentley's registrar, Paul Geisler, was a chaperone and speaks an astounding 10 languages that proved the advantage of being multilingual to Rubsamen.
Unlike Watters, who'd begun to think that computers will someday replace humans, Rubsamen decided "the door to human ingenuity could never be closed" because computers lack curiosity and passion. "That's what humans have and it can't ever be shut down."
There may never be a computer that will rival Spector-Sprague's passion. CERN's high school one-day program is typically open primarily to European schools, and a second day she wrangled for the students is highly unusual.
"Taking students to CERN is something I've wanted to do for a long time," she said. "It's the ultimate in modern physics. It's impossible not to fall in love with the field when you're in the thick of it at CERN."
Spector-Sprague said she and co-leader, humanities teacher Dr. James Whitta, imagined the expedition as "an academic fantasy land."
The trip included visits to Château du Chillon, where Mary Shelley wrote "Frankenstein;" the University of Bern, where Albert Einstein lectured on general relativity, and Einsteinhaus, the famous scientist's home; the European headquarters for the United Nations; historic churches and the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire in Geneva; Mt. Pilatus overlooking Lucerne; and more.
On Einstein, Fiona Lewis, 18, said, "We talked about his work and theories, but it surprised me about his life: how he treated his home, his wife. He wasn't a great dude -- divorce, skipped out on his kids.
"Great men aren't always great in all aspects of their lives," she said. "I want to do great things, but not at the cost of my values, my humanity."
Despite realizing the downside to greatness, Lewis, like James Shum, 18, who found the many branches of science available as career choices to be thrilling, said the 21st century scientists they encountered were "crazy devoted to learning."
Marking themselves true disciples of the Internet age, students were impressed that every scientist they interacted with offered email addresses for follow-up questions.
But one image recalled by Holt brought the scientific examination back to humanity.
"The whole time, I hardly ever saw homeless people," she said. "Their government pays for health care. It's humbling. We think America is best -- and we are unique -- but we have room for improvement. That's exciting."