Learning Can Be Fun

Schools across the country are preparing to send their students forth for a few months of fun and relaxation. Pool time, skate time, hanging out time…kids have their own definite ideas about what summer is supposed to be. And we can relate. Time spent lounging in the backyard enjoying a good sun bath is always an excellent way to spend a day.

Parents, however, tend to take a different view on how to spend the summer. These adults are known for insisting on things like jobs, volunteer positions, study time…everything those poor kids are trying to avoid.

Conflict, thy name is summer break.

Education is always good, on that we five all agree. Whatever your age, learning something new can keep you feeling enthusiastic and involved, not only in your own life but in the world around you as well. It doesn’t need to be a graduate course in organic chemistry – sometimes, just a day spent admiring the variety of bugs in your own backyard can inspire a future entomologist.

There are plenty of options for summer learning but for those willing to do a little traveling, there are definitely some interesting possibilities. For those who enjoy a little space adventure, for example, there are tours of various NASA facilities including Kennedy Space Center, Houston – Mission Control and Huntsville (which is also home to Space Camp). Depending on the facility, you can tour the launch facilities, enjoy a seat at command, or watch a rocket test firing. A quick check of the NASA website will also keep you updated on launch schedules for each NASA launch facility. Take it from us, watching a launch in person is one of the most amazing things you can feel/see/hear.

Just outside of Chicago is another great science-based tour – the Fermi National Acclerator Laboratory, or Fermilab. Fermilab was one of the first particle physics labs and includes a smaller version of the LHC accelerator at CERN. Among Fermilab’s achievements are the 1995 discovery of the top quark and much of the groundwork for the discovery of the Higgs Boson. While the Tevatron (Fermilab’s accelerator) is no longer used, it does provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really see inside a lab. The control room includes notebooks left behind after the accelerator closed, computer monitors that look like they were scavenged from ENIAC’s cousins and an old Apple MAC IIc, still bearing its “Property of U.S. Government” sticker.

Not that Fermilab is just about the past. The lab is redefining itself, and just as Fermilab provided much of the expertise for the construction of the LHC, CERN is helping redesign Fermilab for use in DUNE, the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment. And whether you understand the importance of neutrino oscillations or are simply fascinated by the idea of black holes, Fermilab offers a unique opportunity to feed the geek inside.

Which brings us to our final fun site. It requires a bit more travel for our fellow Americans, but it represents a rare and wonderful opportunity. CERN conducts tours of the LHC (large hadron collider) and depending on the time of year, you may even get the opportunity to go into the heart of the beast. If you happen to make it while the collider isn’t being used (schedules are posted online), you can venture into the tunnel itself. Imagine, standing (sort of) in the spot where the Higgs Boson was finally seen. Even if you can’t schedule a visit during a non-test day, there’s still plenty to see and absorb in this temple to geekdom.

And best of all? CERN is not that far from wine country. So after a day of exploring the world of quantum physics, you can refresh your brain with a little libation and a bit of raclette. It’s a fine day for science fans everywhere.

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