How Come Plasmas Get "no respect" in Science Education and What's Being Done About It?

i-582faaec487363f23b60046038c795b4-Andrew_Zwicker.jpgMeet physicist Andrew Zwicker who is working to raise the status of plasmas in science education. A plasma physicist by training, Andrew is Head of Science Education at Princeton University's Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) where he spends much of his time introducing high school students, undergraduates and K-12 teachers to the glowing, ionized gases that make up plasmas, and to the important role plasmas play in science.

"Plasmas are hot gases containing a significant number of electrically charged particles, and are common in nature," says Andrew, "as exemplified by lightning, the solar core and the aurora borealis." Plasmas also make up such man-made devices as fluorescent light bulbs, fusion reactors, and plasma televisions, he adds. But while 99 percent of the visible universe is in the plasma state, Andrew says, "many schools still teach that there are three states of matter--solid, liquid, and gas-- ignoring plasmas entirely."

Because of the predominance of plasma in the universe, Andrew likes to say, "It's not the fourth state of matter, it's the first state." But textbooks and state and national education standards, for the most part, don't mention plasmas, so many high school teachers don't teach them, says Andrew, who is also a lecturer in Princeton's Writing Program.

To bring home the wonders of plasmas in an unforgettable way to learners , Andrew likes taking undergraduate students and K-12 teachers aboard NASA's Weightless Wonder aircraft in Houston to conduct mid-air experiments in "dusty plasmas"(relevant to the rings of Saturn or the tail of a comet) and to examine whether hot air rises in microgravity (using a plasma ball or a lava lamp).

What cool experiments does your organiztion do with plasma?

Read more about Andrew Zwicker and his work with plasmas here

And watch Andrew conduct some cool experiments:


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OK, I'll come clean: this reminds me of an embarrassingly recent conversation with my materials science-trained boyfriend. I had assumed that plasma was just really bizarre geeky stuff going on in the basement of physics departments, pure blue-skies research. The laundry list of practical applications was pretty impressive.

How do we deal with the tendency to teach nice neat stories to 12-year-olds, and never correct them later on? (I made it to A-levels in Physics and Chemistry without every encountering plasma even as a theoretical possibility: we spent more time on quantum mechanics, although that may have been off the syllabus.)

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 07 May 2011 #permalink

Plasmas gets "no respect" in Turkey too.
My best teacher at university here has nothing to do at school.
They should use him in some good manner.
But, he stays at his room all day long at all :(

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