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The physics of ice cream helps inspire students at PPPL’s STEM Day

More than 35 students from Orange in the north and Moorestown in the south came to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in central New Jersey in early March for a day of science fun that included ice cream made with cryogenics, cool plasma demos, and a hands-on workshop in which they made motors.

The activities were all part of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Day at the Lab on March 2 and they had a serious aim: engaging students in science and technology and hopefully pointing the way to future careers. 

“It’s all about showing them a career path that is possible for them,” said organizer Shannon Swilley Greco, a program leader in PPPL’s Science Education department. “The communities that we’re reaching typically do not have access to engaging STEM opportunities, let alone exposure to plasma science or fusion.”

PPPL, one of 17 national laboratories and the only one devoted to fusion energy research, worked with Rowan College at Burlington County’s Workforce Development Institute, the American Association of Black Engineers, and the Glover Group to put together the event.  “It’s just an extension of our mission to get the next generation excited about science and on board,” said organizer Larry Glover.

The students rotated from a cryogenics demonstration in which they sampled ice cream made with liquid nitrogen to plasma demonstrations that included the hair-raising Van de Graaff generator and the always popular vacuum chamber that makes a marshmallow expand. They also spent time learning about electromagnets in Science Education.

Michael Maitland, a 6th grader from Heywood Avenue Elementary School in Orange, said she liked making an electromagnet. “My favorite part was going into the Science Education Laboratory and attaching the wires to make the bulb light up. I like how we needed just a battery and copper wire.”

Her friend and classmate, Sarlina Chery, was one of many who enjoyed the ice cream. “I think it was really fascinating, especially with the ice cream because they made it really fast, which was really cool!” she said. “At first I was scared to eat it but when I ate it, it was good!”

Teachers and administrators who came with the groups said they liked how engaged the students were. “I think it was fabulous exposure for our kids,” said Faith Alcantara, the principal of the Heywood School. “They were able to make some connections from what they’ve been seeing in school to how it’s actually applied.”

“I think it was an incredible experience,” agreed Samantha Fossella, assistant principal of the Orange Preparatory Academy. “Our students were really excited about it. This just sparks an interest even for those who aren’t into science. It just brings it to a whole new level.”

Members of the Science Education Department and volunteers said they enjoyed the activities as much as the students. “It was very inspiring to see all these kids who were excited about doing science,” Greco said.

“You asked amazing questions, you participated in everything, so today is just a wonderful day,” Andrew Zwicker, head of Science Education, told the group at the end of the day. “You should know that for everything we gave to you, you gave us back just as much.”

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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