Guest Blog: Teaching to Young Students about Plasma Science and Rocket Science

In an age where everything is becoming more and more technologically driven, a stronger emphasis has been placed on increasing the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) workforce so that the US can continue to compete globally. As a result, STEM education is gaining more traction within educational circles. These are all positive developments. I still believe that there should be even more emphasis placed on empowering our youth in early childhood education to understand the importance of STEM. These students are highly impressionable without rigid ideologies. These young students are already scientists. They are fearless with a willingness to question everything and everyone. More importantly, we as citizenry can and must educate them so that they find their own voices with the willingness to innovate and critically think early on.

Since I strongly believe in the importance of STEM education, I had the opportunity to represent UW SACNAS and the University of Washington as I taught to young students about plasma science and rocket science. My outreach efforts were conducted at the Denise Louie Education Center, the Concord YMCA, and the Center for Linguistic and Cultural Democracy.

Denise Louie Education Center (DLEC): April 3, 2012

I had the distinct privilege of spending some time with the students, staff, and educators at the Denise Louie Education Center (DLEC) located in the International District. The overall mission of DLEC is to promote school and life readiness by providing multi-cultural early learning services to needy families and their children. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of teaching science to a class of 3 to 5 years old from very diverse backgrounds. Since some of these students were learning English for the first time, it meant that my words had to be concise, clear, and straightforward. With the help of lead teacher Brandon Blake, “master facilitator as I called him”, we were able to facilitate information about plasma science and advanced rocketry. Specifically, our discussion was about the substance of stars that fuels rockets. Brandon, also from Florida, had already familiarized his class about space and rocketry prior to my arrival. Since rocketry had been formally introduced, we focused primarily on understanding plasmas.

Structure:

I taught the lesson primarily on PowerPoint using only still images and videos. I made sure to ask questions that would require the students to critically think. I always reiterated that there were no wrong answers so that everyone felt included in the process as we were all learning.

We started out with a discussion about what are the different types of substances (e.g. solid, liquid, gas, and plasma). A slide of us discussing the different substances was shown in the photo below. From this slide, everyone recognized these images and gained an understanding about the different states of matter. Most of the students were able to identify ice cubes, water, and boiling water based on their sight and touch perceptions. The students recognized the sun, but didn’t know that it was the fourth state of matter i.e. plasma.

In order to understand more about our sun being plasma, the class engaged in a series of conversations about our sun, why it is plasma, and what plasma looks like in real time using videos from the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). In the videos, one of which was shown in the photo below, Brandon and I asked the students what they saw and why they thought a particular phenomenon occurred. Based on their observations, the students were able to identify spots and loops on the sun which represented sunspots and the magnetic coronal loops.

After going through a series of videos from SDO, I wanted the class to evaluate whether or not using plasma as fuel would be more efficient than traditional chemical rockets. Brandon and I had mentioned to the class that the first three states of matter have been traditionally used for chemical rockets. A video was shown where we asked the students who would win the race. Before the start of the video, we took a tally. Half of the students chose chemical rockets and the other half chose plasma rockets. Who do you think one the race? Some of the students soon realized that it was similar to the tortoise and the hare race. The class was so filled with excitement (Brandon and I alike) that we watched it again to make sure everyone understood why the plasma rocket won the race.

Since the plasma rocket won the race, we wanted to show the class what a future mission to Mars and deep space would look like. Our young scientists at the end of the presentation felt that if they stayed interested in science then they could contribute to the development of advanced rockets. We had a number of them saying that they wanted to become astronauts and go to Mars. Here was a pretty cool photo of the group with the hands held high and all smiles.

At the end of the presentation, I wanted the class to put into practice what they had learned. The class participated in two activities displaying their knowledge from the lesson. The two activities were playing with a plasma globe and building their own suns using sugar cookies.

Plasma Globe:

A plasma globe is a device that contains a mixture of gases that display an array of light illuminated when electrical power is supplied. All of the students had the opportunity to play with the plasma globe and make observations once they touched it.

    

Solar Cookies:

For the solar cookie activity, each student recreated the dynamics seen on the surface of the sun. Each student was given licorice, skittles, vanilla frosting, sprinkles, and a sugar cookie. In the bottom left photo, the students were hard at work creating their own suns. Each student did an amazing job remembering the information we had discussed. A recreation of the sun can be shown from the student in the bottom right photo.

    

After completing the activities, we decided to take a group photo of all the scientists. Special thanks to Brandon Blake and the DLEC for helping me put on a successful lesson.

Concord YMCA: April 18, 2012

I talked with about twenty elementary students at the YMCA\Concord Elementary in West Seattle. I did a similar presentation as I had done with the DLEC, except this time I introduced more about rocket science with these students. The race between the chemical rocket and the plasma rocket was a major hit with these students as well. Based on my experience working with the preschoolers, I decided to come up with a more interactive activity session using the plasma globe. I brought in props such as fluorescent light bulbs and asked the students what they thought would happen. Applying what they learned from the lesson, the students told me that the light bulbs should light up when placed close to the plasma globe. Some of the students mentioned that the gas inside the bulbs would be excited when approaching the globe. I was really impressed. My main objective was to empower these students to think critically and after one lesson with them I witnessed the transformation.

Center for Linguistic & Cultural Democracy (CLCD): April 18, 2012

I talked with home-schooled 8 year olds at the CLCD located in South Seattle about plasma science and rocket science. Since this was a smaller group, I had the opportunity to also discuss general science and engineering topics. I also interacted with the parents and discussed topics to consider when educating their children.

I would like to give a special thanks to Dr. Sharon Cronin for helping me coordinate the events at the Concord YMCA and the CLCD.

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Guest Blog: “The Scientist of Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow”

Before I can discuss the topic “The Scientist of Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow”, I think that it is important to provide some contextual background about me. I am an African American male in the first year of my PhD program at the University of Washington majoring in aerospace engineering. Specifically, I am working with a plasma physics group to investigate experimental plasma physics with applications toward space propulsion.

In order to better understand my path, I will frame my journey toward graduate school. I would also like to highlight Shaun Harper who performed a recent study on successful black males in academia. In his study, I concluded that the main motivating factors behind the successes of black males were due to strong parents, strong teachers, and strong mentors. With the adjective, strong, meaning that these people had a positive influence that lead to upward mobility. From this study, I could have easily been one of the participants. My K-12 education up to middle school was localized in an area where violence surrounded the public schools. Even though these schools lacked key resources and were not the best educational environment, there were still a few great teachers. I was fortunate to receive strong guidance from both my parents and those teachers. My parents taught me to avoid violent situations and to strive for success through hard work and dedication. My teachers taught me to strive for excellence by always challenging myself. Afterward, I was accepted into a high school International Baccalaureate (IB) program which challenged me to want to do even more with my life. The primary tenet of this IB program was Rene Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am.” I was encouraged to think about my future and what I wanted to become. Since I had always had a fascination for the universe and what lies beyond the vastness of the unknown, I chose aerospace engineering as my college field of study and the University of Central Florida (UCF) because of the close proximity to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). With this decision, I became the first person in my family to attend college.

As a result of strong parents, strong teachers, and strong mentors, I developed a mentality for success that was fueled by persistence and determination. While at UCF, I had the opportunity to interact with scientists and engineers from KSC. Furthermore, I had the opportunity and the privilege to participate in research oriented programs like the EXCEL Program, the NSF REU Program, the Research and Mentoring Program, and the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. All of these programs with their outstanding mentors lead to my preparedness toward graduate school.

Now that I am in graduate school, I realize that it was not just serendipity alone that got me to this point. Louis Pasteur said it succinctly with “Chance favors only the prepared mind”. As I move forward, I seek to learn from the journeys of other black scientists as I navigate my own. I would portray the “Scientist of Yesterday” as those that preserved through times of extreme prejudice and racism especially in regards to upward mobility and educational freedom. For instance, two African American scientists that stand out to me are Benjamin Banneker and George Washington Carver. Banneker taught himself mathematics and astronomy and contributed by publishing an almanac. Carver applied agricultural science which leads to innovative methods including the peanut. I would portray the “Scientist of Today” as those that built upon the foundation set by our ancestors. Two scientists that I follow today are Mae C. Jemison and Lonnie G. Johnson. Jemison was not only the first black women to fly in space but was also an American doctor. I admire her not only for the achievements she has acquired, but also her advocacy toward science education and diversity. Johnson is a mechanical and nuclear engineer who has had a career in energizing space probes using atomic batteries (being an aerospace guy, this is pretty cool stuff). He then went on to invent the Super-Soaker water gun. He is also a big advocate for research and development especially in the energy technology sector.

I strongly believe Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) are the future of our country and the foundation of global competitiveness. The “Scientist of Tomorrow” should want to be a part of the STEM movement that takes today’s imagination and turns it into tomorrow’s reality. I extend Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” by asserting that my thoughts today can influence everyone’s tomorrow if I dedicate myself to the advancement of knowledge in the scientific community. The challenges we confront in these difficult times are profound; however, I believe in the principle that opportunities exist for future scientists to propel our nation forward. Ultimately, the call doesn’t start and end with me; there needs to be a larger percentage of STEM professionals who advocate for science education, research and development, and diversity. Will it be you? If so, then you potentially represent the scientist of tomorrow.