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Teaching the teachers: Workshop gives physics professors at minority serving institutions the knowledge and experiments to use in their classrooms

Hillary Stephens is a physics professor at Pierce College Fort Steilacoom, a two-year college in Lakewood, Washington, where students typically aren’t exposed to research experiments. Stephens came to a three-day workshop at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) hoping to find plasma physics experiments she can bring back to the classroom. 

Stephens and other faculty members from across the country took part in the Minority Serving Institution (MSI) Faculty Workshop in Plasma Physics July 30 to Aug. 1 at PPPL. She and eight other faculty members from several institutions received a crash course in plasma physics and did hands-on experiments they can use in their own classrooms. 

“I know just giving them the opportunity to do this is nothing they’ve ever had before,” Stephens said. “I definitely think it will inspire them. I’m hoping they’ll get excited.” 

The program, which is in its third year, aims to create a more diverse pipeline into the fields of plasma physics and fusion energy by introducing plasma physics to faculty at institutions that primarily serve underserved minorities (black, Hispanic, and Native American students) and women.

“I think this program is immensely valuable,” said physicist Arturo Dominguez, senior program leader in science education, who runs the workshop. “It gives them a good framework for including low-temperature plasmas in their curriculum. It’s a way of getting plasma physics to students who would normally not encounter it.” 

Dominguez noted that the various programs PPPL offers aimed at increasing diversity in plasma physics and fusion energy fields are beginning to connect with each other. Faculty from previous MSI workshops, for example, have sent students to PPPL’s Undergraduate Workshop in Plasma Physics, which gives college students a week of plasma physics classes and hands-on experiments. Some of the students in the Undergraduate Workshop have returned to PPPL this summer as participants in DOE’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program, a 10-week program at DOE national laboratories in which students work with scientists on research projects. 

Hands-on experiments

Faculty in the workshop toured the Laboratory, learned about plasma demonstrations in the Science Education Laboratory, and participated in variations of a hands-on experiment, the DC discharge experiment. First, they created plasma in vacuum tubes with electrodes on each end and charted the results when they increased the pressure and voltage. They learned about Paschen’s law, the equation that gives the breakdown voltage (the voltage necessary to start an arc between two electrodes in a gas). A second experiment showed them how to use a Langmuir probe to measure the electron density, temperature and electric potential of a plasma. A third focused on how to use spectroscopy to determine the gas used in a plasma and its temperature.

Faculty participating in the workshop, which was funded by the DOE’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) within DOE’s Office of Science, are also eligible for funding of up to $1,600 to purchase equipment to set up the experiments in their home institutions.   

Stephen Babalola, a physics professor at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, Alabama, an historically black university, learned about the workshop when Dominguez gave a physics seminar there in January. Babalola said he hopes to use plasma demonstrations and experiments to attract more students to the physics program, which only has 20 majors out of a student population of more than 6,000. “It’s hard to get the student population that the school serves to major in physics,” he said. “They didn’t have enough exposure to it in high school. When they think physics, they think math, and it just sounds scary to them. One of the most important things is to actually just excite students and that’s where these demonstrations come in.” 

A way to inspire students

“It’s been very exciting,” said Padmaja Guggilla, a colleague of Babalola’s colleague at Alabama A&M University. “PPPL is going to help us have some instruments in our own laboratory so we can do our own experiments. Having these plasma experiments would definitely inspire students.”

Dominguez pointed out that the experiments are not only a great tool for teaching basic plasma physics concepts in electricity and magnetism but also for teaching numerous other concepts, such as how to analyze vacuum and pressure systems, and statistical analysis.

One of the instructors assisting with the workshop, Professor Jeremiah Williams, of Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, advised faculty members to get students involved in building the experiments. “My students love building things,” he said. “It’s a really good learning opportunity.” 

Retaining students

Professor Jose Lopez, of Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, the other instructor, said involving students in research experiments outside the classroom could also have the benefit of retaining students. Studies show that students are more likely to stay at an institution if they are involved in activities outside the classroom and have greater interaction with faculty members. 

Working on research experiments will also help students get into SULI and other internships, which in turn can help them get into graduate school, Dominguez said. He and the other instructors plan to share with workshop participants information on SULI and other internships as well as other resources for faculty. 

Workshop participant David Schaffner, a plasma physicist and physics professor at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s college in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, said the experiments would help him promote plasma physics. “I feel like a soldier trying to fight the good fight to get plasma physics recognized,” he said. “It’s a great motivator. This is serious research.” 

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 single largest 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, visit energy.gov/science.

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

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