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Caitlin Barilec and Sonia Chevli, two sophomores at Nichols Schools, are currently engaged in a study of cosmic rays. They are working with physics and engineering teacher Larry Hiller.

You might be wondering what are cosmic rays? They are particles that bombard the Earth from anywhere beyond its atmosphere.

To do their research, the Nichols students use a cosmic ray detector. The device detects muons, heavy electrons created in the upper atmosphere, which form when ions or protons or gamma rays from space collide with atoms in Earth's upper atmosphere. Muons only exist for a few millionths of a second, but they travel so fast that they can get all the way to the Earth's surface and be measured by the detector before they're gone.

"The cosmic ray detector consists of four pieces of plastic, known as scintillator panels, which are embedded with chemicals that emit light when they are struck by an electrically charged particle," said Hiller. "When it detects a muon penetrating the panels, the chemicals within will scintillate, or emit flashes of light."

The detector enables the researchers to measure the rate at which the particles reach us, and the angle at which they are traveling.

The parts to build the detector were supplied to the school by Quarknet, a High Energy Physics Outreach program based at Fermilab, a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science national laboratory. Fermilab carries out research in high-energy physics to answer the questions: What is the universe made of? How does it work? Where did it come from?

Researchers from the Buffalo area got involved in Quarknet in 2004 with a partnership between two University at Buffalo professors and area teachers. Currently, the Buffalo Quarknet group has eight active members.

A student in last year's Nichols graduating class, Seong Oh, was instrumental in setting up the detector and getting the research started.

Sonia explained how she got interested in this project: "I took physics in freshman year and loved the class. I love the idea of doing physics work with actual data that can help scientists."

Both Caitlin and Sonia say it's great to be part of a large-scale study.

They are currently evaluating how particles come in over an angular distribution. They began the project as freshmen and plan to work on it through their senior year at Nichols.

They also connected with students at Nardin Academy for a joint project to measure correlated high activity of bursts of cosmic rays in what is known as cosmic ray showers. Sonia says the two schools are working together to "measure cosmic ray showers at the same time in two locations in Buffalo and then compare the data we get."

After they graduate, Sonia and Caitlin both plan to major in physics or engineering in college.

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John Tank is a sophomore at Nichols School.