Fun science for parents and kids at PPPL’s virtual Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work (at home) Day

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
May 4, 2020

More than 100 PPPL parents and children attended the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work (at Home) Day on April 23 to watch plasma experiments and find out about science experiments they can do at home. (The experiments are listed below).

The virtual event was led by Science Education senior program leaders Shannon Swilley Greco and Arturo Dominguez, with the help of Swilley Greco’s three children, Annika, 2, Ryan, 5, and Lukas, 7, and some enthusiastic virtual participants.

“Under normal circumstances we would love to bring the children into the Lab but since every day is take your children to work day, we decided to bring the Lab to our kids,” Greco said. “I was super excited at how well it worked.”

Swilley Greco showed the audience a plasma ball and Dominguez explained that a plasma is an electrically-charged gas and got the audience to give him examples of plasmas in real life like lightning and neon lights.

Swilley Greco also showed the audience a half-coated fluorescent bulb in which the plasma inside moves along with the magnet. Dominguez explained that the magnets help to confine the plasma in PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade, the experimental fusion energy device.

Swilley Greco’s son, Ryan, helped demonstrate the Van de Graaff generator, which creates static electricity that made his hair stand on end. Ryan also held the twisted glass bulb that lit up when Swilley Greco used the Tesla coil. She also showed how a diffraction grating separates into different colors depending on what chemical you are looking at.

Hands-on experiments in the kitchen

Swilley Greco then went upstairs from her basement to her kitchen to demonstrate experiments parents can do at home with their children. This included an experiment in which Swilley Greco blew out a candle and then relit it the candle by lighting the smoke. “I can see it and it is cool,” said Greg Tchilinguirian, head of PPPL’s Instrumentation and Control, who attended with his daughter, Gwen. “I am going to try to do it.”

Dominguez demonstrated how you can crush a can (in another experiment requiring adult supervision) by heating the can on the stove in a pan and then inverting it into ice water.

Swilley Greco also demonstrated how parents and children can create cool bubble creations right at their kitchen table or levitate a ping pong ball using a hair dryer.

Children share their experiments

Some of the children enthusiastically shared their own experiments, with Elizabeth Cai, daughter of engineer Danny Cai, showing how if you put honey on top of dish soap the honey drops to the bottom. This demonstrates something called “density,” she said. 

And Gwen Tchilinguirian shared how she and her father enjoyed going on nature walks in the nearby woods and she took samples in the stream to look at under her microscope. “But then we found out there’s a bear in the woods, she said.”

Parents and kids were very appreciative of the activities. “You make science look fun (which it is),” said staff member Brian Bozarth in the virtual chat room during the presentation.

“Thanks Shannon and Arturo,” said Fredy Rabanales, an electro-mechanical technician. “Kids had fun looking at science experiments.”

And the best review from one of the children was the question, “Can we see you another day?”

“It was great seeing all the children come together and being able to provide some sort of window in which fun and science could come together,” said Dominguez, “and to give them a little bit of time to do something different.”

Sources for at-home science experiments

In addition to the experiments compiled by Swilley Greco here, she and Dominguez suggested several other sources for parents to find experiments to do with kids:

  • PPPL’s Remote Glow Discharge Experiment (RGDX) shows users to control a plasma via computer. The hands-on experiment still operating virtually in PPPL’s Science Education Lab lets users manipulate a plasma by manipulating the magnetic field, pressure, and voltage
  • - offering Skype sessions with scientists - normally for schools, but now open to families!!

Take Your Daughters & Sons to Work (At Home) was one of several lunchtime and after-work events sponsored by the Advisory Committee for Employees (ACE). 

Below are home science experiments you can do at home with your children courtesy of PPPL’s Science Education staff : (Please note that some require adult supervision)  


Test out different soaps, different amounts of water vs. soap, to see what variables affect how big you can make your bubble.

Questions: Can you get it to transfer to a surface? To a friend’s hand? To another bubble?

Materials: Sink or plastic bin, various soaps (bar, dish, hand, foam), water, countertop 

Batteries and circuits:

Try to light the light bulb with the battery and ONE wire.

Questions: Can you light it? What are the essential parts? What are the contact points/electrodes? Does direction matter?

Materials: D and AA batteries, wire, flashlight bulb or LED (if you have one)

Lighting and putting out a candle: ADULT SUPERVISION REQUIRED

Light a candle, try to light it from the smoke coming up.

Mix baking soda and vinegar and pour the gas onto a lit candle.

Questions: What’s happening? How did it light? What do you have to do to light it? Why did it go out? What put it out? Where did it come from?

Materials: Candle, lighter, cup, ¼ c baking soda, ¼ c vinegar (exact amounts don’t matter at all) 

Spaghetti Engineering Challenge:

Stick uncooked spaghetti upright in foam or other medium, place plate or book on top and see how many things you can stack on top.

Questions: How many pieces of spaghetti is optimal? How much weight can it support? What makes spaghetti break? What makes it support weight?

Materials: Foam disc or silly putty or playdough… maybe a cup with sugar or salt, at least 2” deep

Uncooked spaghetti

Paper or plastic plate or hardcover book

Random objects

Making a cloud in your mouth

Creating a cloud by creating aerosol in the mouth and increasing the pressure.

Questions: How does this work? Tricks to make it work?

Materials: Mouth

Levitate a ping pong ball

Try to levitate the ping pong ball

Questions: How does this work? What are some tricks to keep it levitating? Is there a “zone” where it works? Can you draw it?

Materials:Ping pong ball

Straw and/or hair dryer

Extension: try it with an inflated balloon and fan


Using tongs, heat the can on the stove (in a pan), then invert the can and quickly plunge into ice water. What happens to the can? Why?

Materials: Can, stove, ice water

Testing inertia with eggs

Knock an egg into a cup of water while knocking the structure underneath!

Materials: egg, cup of water, toiler paper roll (just the cardboard), small cutting board

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

PPPL is mastering the art of using plasma — the fourth state of matter — to solve some of the world's toughest science and technology challenges. Nestled on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, New Jersey, our research ignites innovation in a range of applications including fusion energy, nanoscale fabrication, quantum materials and devices, and sustainability science. The University manages the Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the nation’s single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences. Feel the heat at and