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A student displaying electromagnets they created at home.
A student displaying electromagnets they created at home.

Editor's note: this article was originally posted at PPPL's website. 

A dozen undergraduate students spent the afternoon doing experiments aimed at teaching them some fundamentals about electromagnets through the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s (PPPL) Undergraduate Workshop in Plasma Physics, but instead of sitting at laboratory tables the students built small homemade batteries and electromagnets in their own living rooms and bedrooms.

The students attending the four-day workshop from July 27 to July 30 broke into small groups and proudly displayed to each other how their batteries could light a small LED lightbulb during a session that was given remotely due to COVID-19.

The workshop is aimed at introducing underrepresented students, including Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ+ and female students in their first or second year of college, to plasma physics, giving them an opportunity to network, and encouraging them to apply for internships at PPPL that could lead to careers in plasma physics and fusion sciences.

Arturo Dominguez, Science Education senior program leader who organized the class for the fourth year, said he was happy PPPL was able to offer the workshop despite most of on-site operations at the national laboratory being curtailed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “The whole idea is to get them excited about plasma physics and interested in doing internships and I think we succeeded in doing that,” Dominguez said.

Dominguez and co-leader Laura (Xin) Zhang, a fifth-year graduate student at PPPL, modified the workshop, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS), to make it an online class. Dominguez reduced the number of students in the workshop from 20 to 12 to allow more intimate discussions. PPPL’s Science Education team sent students packets with batteries, copper wires, and other equipment for hands-on experiments. They enlisted the help of lab videographer Elle Starkman to provide a video tour of the laboratory in lieu of the usual in-person tour. “We tried hard to make it very interactive,” Zhang said. “It went surprisingly well.”

Beyond the Experiment

In addition to the hands-on experiments, Shannon Swilley Greco, another Science Education senior program leader, displayed hands-on experiments like the Van de Graaff generator and the Tesla Coil via Zoom. Students learned some basic scientific coding in a computational workshop in which they worked on programs together in breakout rooms led by graduate students Jacob Schwartz, Yichen Fu, and Oak Nelson. Steve Cowley, PPPL director, who usually finds time to eat lunch with students when the workshop is on-site, dropped in via video chat to talk to the students. And on the final day, several graduates of the program, some of whom are currently participating in PPPL’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program, talked to them about internships and graduate school.

“I hope that even though this is virtual, it’s going to be good educationally for you,” Cowley said. “I’m a fusion nut. I want to make fusion a reality. It’s frustrating because it’s harder than we thought it would be…We’re close but we have some very tricky problems to solve.”

Training for the Future

Students said they enjoyed the workshop. Fernarndo Rivera joined the class from his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A student at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Rivera said he is concentrating on mathematical physics, but plasma physics has always been interesting to him so he applied for the workshop. He said he was enjoying the workshop. “Honestly, it would be nice to go to New Jersey and be at the lab, but this is a way we can do it,” he said.

Julia Wright, a student at Willamette University, said she joined the program because she is majoring in physics but isn’t sure what branch of physics to specialize in. “I’m trying to look into a few different options and this was a great opportunity for me,” she said.

Wright said she appreciated being able to take part in the workshop even though she wasn’t able to travel to PPPL from her home in Independence, Oregon. “Obviously I would love to be there in person but I think this is going pretty well,” she said. “The breakout rooms are a great way to make it feel more personal…It’s been nice to be able to talk to other people. It’s as close to in-person as you can get.”

Students taking part in PPPL’s SULI program gave the workshop participants advice about forging relationships with professors, networking and internships. One such student was Milan Wolff, who is participating in SULI this summer, took part in the Undergraduate Workshop in 2018, and is beginning graduate school in computer science at Wyoming University in the fall after graduating from the College of William and Mary. Wolff advised students to take risks. “Take every opportunity you come across that sounds interesting,” Wolff told students. “I knew nothing about plasma physics when I took this course but there was an email in my inbox and I thought ‘I’ll try that out.’”

People are always excited to hear from people who are excited about what they do.  Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.

Louise Ferris
Student at Duquesne University

Another graduate, Louise Ferris, a student at Duquesne University, echoed that advice. “People are always excited to hear from people who are excited about what they do,” she told students. “Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.”

Matt Lazo, a student at West Virginia University who participated in the Undergraduate Workshop in 2018, said the workshop opened his eyes to the plasma physics field. “Coming to the workshop definitely opened my eyes to the world of plasma and got me interested in it,” he said. “I’m pretty sure as a career path I want to go into the space industry and do something with plasma physics.”

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 Princeton 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 is external).