Science teachers from across the U.S. learn ways to make plasma science come alive in day-long virtual workshop

June 22, 2022

Middle and high school science teachers from schools all over the U.S. learned how to incorporate plasma physics into their curriculum at the American Physical Society (APS) Division of Plasma Physics’ Science Teacher Day organized by the APS DPP Education and Outreach Organizing Committee, including the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s Science Education staff members.

The workshop is usually held at the fall APS Division of Plasma Physics Conference but was postponed in 2021 due to COVID-19. The organizers hope the workshop will be back in person at the 2022 APS Division of Plasma Physics Conference in Spokane, Washington, Oct. 17 to 21 and are considering holding a recurring virtual workshop as well.  

Participants in the June 2 program learned how to incorporate hands-on plasma physics demonstrations intended to make plasma physics lessons come alive into the Next Generation Science Standards curriculum. They practiced the demonstrations themselves with kits that included a plasma ball, a fluorescent bulb, magnets, and other materials contributed by PPPL and its partners and assembled at PPPL.

Swilley Greco demonstrates how a diffraction grating shows the spectrum of neon to teachers in the workshop.

Swilley Greco demonstrates how a diffraction grating shows the spectrum of neon to teachers in the workshop. (Screenshots and collage by Kiran Sudarsanan/PPPL Office of Communications)



“It was super great,” said Arturo Dominguez, head of Science Education. “It was the first time it was opened up nationwide…We were able to incorporate some of the hands-on activities that are used in the in-person workshop while reaching a nationwide audience remotely. We’re hoping this will be a model for future remote workshops.”

Among the presenters was Shannon Swilley Greco, Science Education senior program leader, who taught a “Plasma 101” class for middle school teachers. Greco helped organize the conference along with Dominguez, Deedee Ortiz, Science Education program manager, Julie Manns, of General Atomics, and  Paul Rivenberg, an education and outreach coordinator at MIT, all of whom are part of the APS DPP Public Engagement Committee.

“We have two tracks to help middle school and high school teachers incorporate plasma physics into their curriculum,” said Swilley Greco, who led one of the classes. “Our approach is that teaching about plasma is a great way to teach things you already have to teach in a way that the students haven’t seen before,” Swilley Greco explained.  “We take the Next Generation Science Standards and try to align with that. They can teach parts of the atom, light and optics, electricity and magnetism, state of matter in ways that are a little bit more interesting.”

In her presentation, Swilley Greco taught middle school teachers some basics about plasma science and showed them ways to demonstrate those principals. “The three cool things about plasma: they conduct electricity, they give off light and you can move them with magnets,” Swilley Greco told the teachers as she demonstrated how a plasma ball can light up a fluorescent bulb, which also contains a plasma. The teachers then tried out the demonstration themselves using materials that PPPL mailed to them.

Swilley Greco told the teachers that when she teaches workshops or gives tours of PPPL in person, she makes all participants, even physicists, do the states of matter dance. Participants huddle together to demonstrate a solid and get progressively far apart and more energetic as they demonstrate matter becoming a liquid, a gas and then a plasma. As a gas becomes a plasma, Swilley Greco flings off a scarf or her employee badge to demonstrate an electron being ripped off.

The activities teachers learned in the day-long workshop were part of a broader effort by researchers and science educators to promote science education activities incorporating plasma science into science curriculums. Dominguez and Swilley Greco were among numerous authors of a white paper on informal science education and career advancement that supports the APS call for institutions to add participation in informal science education activities to the criteria for hiring and promoting researchers. The report details the benefits of science education and public engagement. Students who are exposed to science education can be inspired to enter STEM careers through science education and learn critical thinking, according to the paper. Researchers benefit by learning how to communicate science to the general public and can benefit their research.  Science education activities can also improve mentoring, teaching and training, and can demonstrate the societal impact of research.

Swilley Greco’s class won kudos from the participants. One participant said Swilley Greco is a “great presenter.” Another said they appreciated her discussion of how to incorporate the demonstrations into the Next Generation Science Standards. Another teacher took away the idea that, “the demonstrations of states of matter and other activities can be easily implemented in the classroom.”

Participants were equally positive about other classes in the workshop. “I love the examples and will try them out with my students for sure,” said one teacher. “I really appreciate the plasma tool kit and would love to show the demos to my students,” said another. “I’ve had a hard time explaining plasma to them in the past but I feel I’m much better equipped now and the students would be excited to see plasma generated!”

In addition to PPPL, General Atomics, and MIT, partner institutions in the program include the APS, Auburn University, Wittenberg University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and The Ohio State University.


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