A Collaborative National Center for Fusion & Plasma Research

At Plasma Camp, teachers experience research front and center

For one week every summer, a small group of teachers gathers at PPPL to relive student days. At this year’s Plasma Camp, a professional development program for science educators, 10 high school physics teachers lived together in a college dormitory, got lost together as they navigated the circuitous laboratory building, and learned as they created new plasma-based curricula.

These teachers spent the week of July 15 to 19 performing plasma-based experiments, learning about plasma and fusion, and touring the physics laboratories on PPPL and Princeton University’s campus. They also connected with other physics teachers from across the country, both during the day in the lab and each evening after leaving when, as a group, they had the chance to explore downtown Princeton.

Looking for the best candidates

The 10 were chosen from a pool of 27 applicants as the best candidates for the program. “We look for people who have innovation in their curricula,” Science Education program administrator Aliya Merali said. “These are people that we believe will really put plasma in their classroom and disseminate the information to their students and their coworkers.”

Plasma Camp aims to attract teachers from across the U.S. and from school districts of varying socioeconomic backgrounds. In order to make it available to everyone, all airfare, lodging, and meals are paid for by PPPL so the entire program costs the participants and their schools virtually nothing. This year, the participants ranged from as near as Summit, N.J. to as distant as Livingston, Mont.

Each came in search of professional development to enhance his or her science courses and left with a unique experience to bring to students.

Physics teachers from across the country

Wendy Dlakic from Livingston, Mont. traveled the farthest of this year’s Plasma Camp participants. She is in her fourth year of teaching and currently teaches physics and earth science at Park High School.

 “I have a goal where every year I try to find professional development that is in a field where I’m teaching,” Dlakic said. She started teaching physics only recently, and she said, “A program like Plasma Camp is ideal in helping me develop unfamiliar curriculum.”

For Dlakic, the material was a perfect fit because of her teaching responsibilities in two separate fields of science. “It’s a nice correlation for both physics and earth science because of the [applications to] energy,” she said. “I’m excited that I can get something for both classes.”

Like Dlakic, Jonathan Everett from Millerstown, Pa. was looking for material from plasma camp to apply to the two science classes that he teaches. At Greenwood Middle High School, Everett teaches 8th grade science as well as 11th grade physics.

Although he is a seasoned educator and has been teaching for 13 years, Everett also seeks out science professional development every summer with a specific goal for each program. “I want to understand how some of the more advanced equipment works and bring that into the classroom to provide lab experiences for the students,” he said.

Experience in a working research lab

One of the highlights for Dlakic was touring PPPL and viewing the research sites. “We were able to see the nuts and bolts of how this research is actually carried out,” she said. “It’s one thing to talk about the theory but another to see it being carried out. Seeing the control rooms and where projects are spinning off – to me, that’s really fascinating.”

Everett found the lectures in this unique environment particularly exciting because they broke the isolation to which he was accustomed. “In my home environment, I am the only physics teacher within 60 or 70 square miles,” he said, “so I found it really awesome to work with a bunch of other physics teachers.”

The highlight of the lectures for Everett was the lesson on fusion and fusion reactors, taught by Andrew Zwicker, head of science education and co-creator of Plasma Camp along with Nick Guilbert, a physics teacher from the Peddie School in Hightstown and a long-time collaborator with PPPL.  

All participants were eager to become thoroughly well-versed on this particular topic. “This was a very inquisitive group that challenged me with their questions in the best way possible,” Zwicker said. “They really wanted to get at the physics, economics, and politics of energy and fusion.”

Curriculum plans

Throughout the week, the participants developed new plasma-based curricula that relied heavily on hands-on experimental work. They played around with plasma equipment, getting accustomed to the lights randomly turning on and off when someone needed to see something in the dark and hearing crackling noises as others studied the breakdown voltage of plasmas under different pressures.

At the end of the week, the participants had a group discussion about how to integrate plasmas into their curriculums. “Talking with 10 other physics teachers – you always learn stuff,” Dlakic said. “These are all educators that are driven and ambitious so they’re going to have all kinds of great ideas.” In the end, each was able to find a specific point in the year to introduce the subject.

Everett approached the task of applying Plasma Camp to his teaching by using plasmas to enhance and solidify concepts in topics already found in the standard science curriculum. He plans to include plasmas in the unit on states of matter in his 8th grade science class. He has already planned a hands-on activity in which his students will be able to experience plasmas firsthand in a safe environment by observing the motion inside a plasma ball. “I think they’re going to find it really interesting,” he said.

As for his 11th grade physics class, Everett will introduce plasma to his unit on waves at the beginning of the school year by performing an experiment to find the wavelength of spectral emissions. He will later reintroduce plasmas into the section on electricity and magnetism by showing the influence of magnetism on plasmas.

Dlakic plans to focus an entire unit on plasmas in her physics class. She will place the topic after mechanics and before electricity and magnetism because she believes that plasmas will be a fantastic way to introduce students into the following chapters. “Plasmas have great hands-on hook activities to bring in the students,” she said. “Then, when we get more in-depth to photoelectric effects, we have all these great experiments to hook back to, especially since it’s a really important concept with energy needs.”

For Everett, the discussion on curriculum planning tied the experience together.  “It was a great end-of-the-week opportunity to make a difference in the classroom,” Everett said.

Perhaps the most exciting thing for all the Plasma Camp participants, though, is that the teachers each leave with a plasma kit containing basic experimental tools used throughout the week, including a plasma globe and a half-coated fluorescent light bulb, and they have the rare opportunity to apply for a $2,000 grant for additional lab equipment.

Teachers and students learning together

Plasma Camp gave these teachers insight into a unique subject that many had no prior experience with. The participants will be bringing back this brand new material to their students this fall. “It’s given me a whole new perspective and a lot of knowledge about this field and its possibilities,” Dlakic said. “To me, that’s pretty exciting.”


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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