Cosmic Gamma Rays

Contact Information:

  • Katelyn McCarthy. Email:


What are Cosmic Gamma Rays? How do we detect them? How is this information useful? This lesson plans endeavors to explain these high level concepts to your students in a fun and engaging manner. Students will not only learn about these powerful sources of energy, but also be able to conduct research just like the scientists of HAWC and help determine when a cosmic ray or gamma ray event happens.

Lesson Content Overview:

  • Engage (15 min): Students are introduced to gamma and cosmic rays through an analogy about the senses. Students make connections between the senses (sight and smell) and gamma and cosmic rays by reading and discussing an article.
  • Explore (25 min): Students are introduced to Cherenkov Radiation through a short video, and learn how photomultiplier tubes (PMTs) are used to detect the radiation. Students are also introduced to the High-Altitude Water Cherenkov Gamma-Ray Observatory (HAWC Observatory) through another video. Students practice separating cosmic ray and gamma ray events based on what they know at this point (gamma rays are similar to sight – straight line, while cosmic rays are similar to smell – spread out).
  • Explain (25 min): Students are provided a summary of air showers, which provide the bridge between gamma and cosmic rays and the particles that actually reach the ground to be detected. Students use this additional (new) information to finalize their event card groupings (gamma ray events and cosmic ray events). Students have a whole-class discussion about gamma rays, cosmic rays, and air showers.
  • Extend (30 min): Students take the search for gamma sources to the sky by looking at HAWC data of several locations in the sky (some gamma sources, some not). Students try to find patterns in the data, and then examine the results from computer-analyzed data, all in an attempt to answer “gamma source or no gamma source?”.
  • Evaluate (15 min): Students reflect on the HAWC project and detecting gamma sources by reading an article that describes the release of HAWC’s first publicly available sky map of high-energy gamma sources. Students make connections between the article and what they have done/learned in this lesson by talking with a classmate before constructing an explanation that answers the lesson question, “how can we detect gamma and cosmic rays, in the pursuit of locating their sources?”

Supporting Material:

Cosmic Gamma Rays – Lesson Plan

Cosmic Gamma Rays – Lesson Slides

Resource – Cosmic Rays v. Gamma Rays

Resource – HAWC Simulated Map Cards

Resource – Source or No Source Game Slides

About the Team:

Petra Huentemeyer, PhD (, Professor, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, MI


Henrike Fleischhack, PhD (, Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB), Germany


Xiaojie Wang, PhD (, Post-Doctorate, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, MI


Katelyn McCarthy (, Teacher, Kalamazoo Area Mathematics and Science Center, Kalamazoo, MI


Matt Laird (, Instructor, Gogebic Community College, Houghton, MI


Heather Murphy (, Teacher, Hancock High School, Hancock, MI


Tamala Sebring (, Teacher, Pittsfield High School, Pittsfield, MA

Interested in Joining?

The call for applications to participate in this RET will be posted in the fall.


Check back here or contact Petra Huentemeyer for more information.