Through Hands-On Learning, Physicists Ignite a Passion for Science in Young Students
“I am now going to think of magnets in a totally different way because of science,” explained Valencia Merllien, a seventh grade at Olsen Middle School in Dania Beach, Florida.
Faculty and graduate students from the Department of Physics at Auburn University made a lasting impact on more than 1,500 students at the 61st Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Plasma Physics held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
For a decade, members from the Department of Physics in the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) at Auburn University have traveled across the country to this event to inspire thousands of students to pursue a career in a STEM field.
“I liked using the holographic diffraction grating glasses to learn why you see a rainbow,” shared Djaiane Pereira, a ninth-grade student at Northeast High School in Oakland Park, Florida.
Students learned about plasma physics, a subject not found in their normal curriculum. They discussed what a plasma is and where do they exist through interactive experiments. Students were able to talk about the differences between Alternating Current (AC) verses Direct Current (DC) through an experiment using a lightbulb and ask questions.
“I liked seeing the difference between the two different types of current,” said Isabella Dal Molin, an eighth grade student at Westglades Middle School in Parkland, Florida. “I was able to figure out the difference and I got it.”
These simple demonstrations gave students a chance to learn more about science and connect with real researchers.
“We are here to help encourage the next generation of scientists,” explained Dr. Ed Thomas, Jr., the Charles W. Barkley Endowed Professor and Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies. Auburn University is known around the world for its strong plasma physics program, and houses the unique Magnetized Dusty Plasma Experiment featuring a 6,000-pound superconducting magnet.
Students had fun learning why they became the path for the attractive point when they touched a glass plasma ball that had lightning-like arcs.
“I now know why the ping pong balls froze in the air because of the principles of science,” said Ronilsen Delcisse, a seventh grade student who had a blast learning how a standard hair dryer can be used to model electrical forces in a plasma.
The most popular demonstration was where students learned that they do not always see the cause of the force, but they could see the effect through tennis balls with hidden magnets inside.
Amidst the laughter and excitement throughout this year’s expo, students learned about the different careers a degree in physics can help prepare them for and what industries they can go into. They talked with an array of diverse scientists who explained the invaluable skills a degree in physics could offer them including:
- Developing critical thinking skills
- Breaking down a complex problem into more manageable parts
- Understanding how quantitate problem skills can be applied
- Creating a foundation to explain how the world works
- Asking what underlying behavior exists.
“Being able to bring middle and high school students together to have a tangible experience learning about plasma physics and fusion science from leading universities, national labs and industry is a great way to influence students into embarking on a future in STEM,” said Dr. Arturo Dominguez, the science education senior program leader at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and who handles science education and public outreach for the annual expo.
Faculty and graduate students from universities such as Auburn, MIT and Princeton as well as national laboratories provided these demonstrations. Local universities were also present to help showcase physics to these young scholars.
“We create a passion for science and help students realize the unlimited opportunity that a degree in physics holds,” added Dr. Thomas.
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