Italians sample science and
America at Gran Sasso summer program
Far from their homes in the mountains of
central Italy, a group of 22 high school students are spending three
weeks on the Princeton campus, plunging deeper into science and American
society than they ever have.
Now in its fourth summer, the Gran Sasso-Princeton Physics Summer School
draws promising young talent from the Italian region of Abruzzo, which
is also home to the Gran Sasso National Laboratory. Gran Sasso is
conducting a major physics experiment involving Princeton scientists,
who view the summer school partly as an opportunity to give back to the
communities that support their research.
"Once, after taking a few Princeton undergraduates there, we decided to
bring a few Italian students back with us," said Cristiano Galbiati, an
assistant professor of physics who is also from Italy. "We try to teach
them a bit of science, but also give them the chance to live in a
different culture for a few weeks. That can be important for their
development, as some of them have never set foot out of their country,
so it's a big life experience for them."
The summer program, founded by Princeton
Professor of Physics Frank Calaprice and expanded by Professor of
Physics Chiara Nappi, is tailored to the students' particular needs: It
offers them English language lessons and day trips to nearby cities as
well as hands-on experience in a physics lab. It is this unique
combination of opportunities that attracted high school senior Federico
Di Donato to the school, which runs through Aug. 15.
"I really want to see New York, of course," he said, "but I'll probably
study physics at university next year, and this is my first real chance
to use lab equipment."
Di Donato was looking up from a large transparent tube filled with an
unknown gas he was trying to identify by applying the physical theories
he had learned from a lecture earlier in the week.
"We never get this sort of lesson in Italy," he said. "Classes are
really abstract there. But here we can actually see what we are studying."
Galbiati said the lab work, which like most Princeton science
instruction is oriented toward problem solving rather than rote
memorization, would serve students well no matter what they choose to do
in the future.
"We're not necessarily trying to turn
everybody into physicists -- they are still young enough that they
should be looking around," he said. "But they can take the lessons they
are learning today with gases, for example, and then apply it to
different curricula. It's going to help them in a number of fields, like
medicine, biology or engineering."
While Martina Tacconelli is still exploring her options for the future,
her lab partner, Alessandra Brancone, has already been bitten by the
"Physics is the only thing that can explain all of nature, so I really
like learning about it," said Brancone, who has already developed a
fascination with relativity. "I'm still amazed that something that takes
three seconds for me could take a whole minute for someone else
traveling at a different speed. I learned that here for the first time."
Experiences like Brancone's are not uncommon, and the regional
university in Abruzzo has seen several summer school alumni enter as
"We have some feedback on some of our former students who are now at the
University of L'Aquila," Galbiati said. "A professor there who I'm
working with on a dark matter project has some new students that are
planning to join him because they came to our summer school. That was
their first exposure to the research conducted at the Gran Sasso lab."
The interaction between the students and the scientists working in Italy
has had the added benefit of increasing understanding of the experiment
going on at the Gran Sasso lab among members of the local communities. A
research group led by Calaprice is conducting a major international
particle physics experiment there involving the search for neutrinos.
"The school has had a major impact on how the lab is perceived in the
surrounding region," said Galbiati, who also is working on the project.
"People were not aware of what was going on because they just saw this
big steel door. Now that the students are traveling back and forth every
summer, the local population is very supportive of both the experiment
and the educational opportunity we're providing."
The director of the Gran Sasso lab, Eugenio Coccia, agreed that the
program was a valuable resource to the local communities.
"I came to Princeton last January with the governor of Abruzzo, who was
so impressed that the region is now contributing about half the cost of
transporting and boarding the students," Coccia said. "People are
beginning to understand the value of this kind of educational program."
The greatest value was for the students themselves, he said.
"They come back to Italy really enthusiastic from the experience," said
Coccia, who taught at the school himself this summer. "It opens their
minds to what a university campus can be. It lets them meet their
American colleagues, hear talks from scientific celebrities and have the
opportunity to play baseball. And the main result is most of them will
choose a scientific degree at the university."