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Featured Scientist - Chuck Ankenbrandt

Chuck Ankenbrandt is our featured scientist this quarter. Chuck has been a Fermilab physicist since 1973 and is a member of the Accelerator Division. He is also heavily involved in educational activities at the Lab. As the father of five children ranging in age from 33 to 8 and the stepfather of four more, Chuck has had a lot of personal educational experience, too!

Chuck, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Would you start by telling us about your current activities at Fermilab?

There are three main things now. I'm Experimental Coordinator for the Accelerator Division. I'm designing a high-intensity Fermilab Booster and I'm working with the Education Office on a variety of physics-related activities.

What do you do as Experimental Coordinator?

Well, as you know, the Research Division is primarily responsible for interacting with most of the high-energy physics experiments here. However, there are a few experiments which occupy Accelerator Division "turf" that I ride herd on. At present there are three active Tevatron Collider experiments (not counting the big ones at CDF and D0) as well as three in the Antiproton Accumulator. It's mostly a bureaucratic job, so it's not much fun. But somebody's got to do it, and it has to be someone who understands Accelerator Theory Department. More recently I led a team that produced a conceptual design of a proton synchrotron for cancer therapy.

Why are you working on a high-intensity Booster design?

It's a productivity issue. The output of the high-energy physics program depends on the number of protons that we can accelerate. We have a chain of accelerators that run in series, so the weakest link limits performance. Historically the Lab has always concentrated a lot of resources on whatever machine is perceived to be the bottleneck. (Oops, that's a mixed metaphor; chains don't have bottlenecks!) Anyway, this strategy has paid off with steady improvements in performance. When I started working on accelerators, I joined the Booster group because that machine was the limiting factor. We were able to make some big improvements back then, and the recent Linac Upgrade really helped to enhance the performance of the Booster, so now the Main Ring is the worst bottleneck. The Antiproton Source also seems to be running near saturation. However, in a few years the Main Injector will have replaced the Main Ring, and the Recycler will have alleviated the limitations of the Antiproton Source. Then the present Booster will be the bottleneck once again; we will have come full-circle!

You've been here a long time. What are some of the other things you've done?

I was hired into the Physics Department, and my first service job was to provide small computer support to a couple of the early experiments. Meanwhile I also pursued my own research interests by taking part in some of the early high-energy experiments. Around 1975 Rol Johnson convinced me to help him make the Booster work better. Before I knew what hit me, Rol was off to CERN for a year and I was the new group leader. On his way out the door, he gave me some advice; he said to line up a successor because I wouldn't want to do that job forever. Sure enough, a couple of years later I became Main Ring group leader for awhile, then worked on Antiproton Source design, then helped commission the Tevatron. Subsequently I did a stint as head of the Accelerator Theory Department. More recently I led a team that produced a conceptual design of a proton synchrotron for cancer therapy.

Would you tell us about some of your activities with the Education Office?

When the Lederman Science Center was in the planning stages, I helped brainstorm the hands-on exhibits; currently we're working to complete the room that covers some of the conceptual basis of particle physics and the connections to cosmology. Also, for the last two summers, I've been overseeing the hands-on physics activity for the Topics in Modern Physics Institute, which brings high school physics teachers to Fermilab for a brief introduction to high-energy physics. They build and use cosmic-ray telescopes; in the process, they learn a little about the techniques and ideas of high-energy physics.

Can you tell us a little about your own early education in math and science?

I went to Catholic schools in the Cleveland are In grade school, I was good at math; I honestly don't remember being exposed to any science at all! I was a good student, eager to please, but boredom was a big problem because there were no special programs for smart kids. The high school was a lot better because it had competitive admissions and ability-tracked classes. But still, I had only two science courses, chemistry and physics, in high school and didn't learn calculus until I was a sophomore in college. The high school physics course was conventional, but still I found it so interesting that I decided at age 17 to become a physicist.

As a parent, what are your impressions of the educational system?

I agree with the consensus that nationally the K-12 education system needs a lot of improvement, especially in math and science. However, the fact that kids are coming out poorly educated is not entirely the fault of the schools; the problems of society are a big factor. Most teachers deserve our admiration for trying hard to do a difficult job well. We're fortunate here in the western suburbs to have pretty good public schools. The big suburban high schools have so many honors courses and remedial level courses that they basically track the students according to ability. That's beneficial because it allows teachers to match the material and the rate of presentation to the abilities of the students.

How would you change the way science is taught?

Research has shown that in order for kids to really assimilate science, to make it their own, they have to be active participants in the job of constructing their own understanding of nature. The education reformers are trying hard to move in that direction, with more hands-on activities, more active participation, more inquiry, but the system is huge, and like all huge systems, it has a lot of inerti To show kids that they can understand how nature works by some method other than reading books and trusting authorities would instill a lot of confidence and be very liberating and motivational. But I sense a reluctance on the part of some teachers to relinquish the authoritarian role, even for the duration of a science class. The reluctance of some teachers to encourage free-form inquiry springs, no doubt, from a lack of confidence resulting from inadequate background in science. At the elementary level, it sometimes seems that science is equated with environmentalism. The way environmentalism is taught reminds me of my religious training. (Laughs.) "This is what you should believe, and this is how you should act." There are saints (recyclers) and sinners (polluters). In this context, hands-on science means carrying your trash to the recycling bin. A cynic might surmise that environmentalism is emphasized because it's safer than controversial topics like evolution and the origins of the universe.

What can parents do to enhance the education of their children?

So many things! There are the basics, like keeping them healthy and happy, and providing an environment conducive to mental activities, and encouraging them to show up on time and well-prepared. It's important for children to experience the joy of understanding, so they don't try to learn everything by rote memory. And it's very important for a kid to experience success, to know how good success feels and what it takes to attain it, even if it's not initially in academics. For example, I've talked with Alex and Amy, my grade-school children, about how it took a lot of work to become good swimmers, but the effort was kind of enjoyable, and winning races is a lot of fun; and I've tried to convince them that succeeding in school is a similar process.

Sometimes we tend to forget that being a good student is so much more than just being smart. A woman I know, a good student, went back to graduate school as a mature adult to get a master's degree in education. She had to take some introductory survey courses such as psychology in order to make up deficiencies. She found it remarkable that many of her fellow students, mostly underclassmen, lacked the basic tools for academic success. For example, the broad hints that the professors gave about what would be on the next exam went over their heads; they failed to turn in homework; they didn't seem to know any of the tricks that make it easier to memorize things. She concluded that, at least at that level, common-sense competent behavior was almost sufficient to insure good grades. The recent best-seller called Emotional Intelligence has a lot to say that's relevant here.