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.


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.


Outreach Event: Yakima Valley Science and Engineering Festival

On March 8, the UW Student Chapter of SACNAS participated in the first ever Yakima Valley Science and Engineering Festival.  The event, sponsored by the University of Washington, Educational Service District 105 and Heritage University, brought 2100 K-12 students and community members to interact with hands-on STEM activities from over 70 exhibitors.  It was an amazing day where chapter members Katrina Claw, Daniel Hernandez and I all walked away completely energized and hoarse from so many positive interactions with Yakima Valley community members.

The UW Student Chapter of SACNAS was approached by UW Genome Sciences to participate in event, I was immediately interested in helping. This was a great opportunity to bring the science of SoundCitizen and the community of the chapter to the large populations of of Hispanic/Latino and Native American youth in the rural Yakima Valley.  While there is a wealth of opportunities for students in the Seattle metropolitan area to connect with STEM professionals, opportunities for rural youth are few and far between.

An email from an event organizer recounted “Exhibitors/presenters included Boeing’s Museum of Flight, Pacific Science Center, OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry), (OHSU) Oregon’s Health and Science University’s “Let’s Get Healthy” exhibit, University of Washington’s GENOME Project, ESD 105’s STEM Showcase and many other community based booths. There were also representatives from higher education schools such as the University of Washington, Heritage University, Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, Yakima Valley Community College, YV Tech & Washington State University MESA program.” We repeatedly heard from event participants that there had never been anything like this around Yakima and organizers are receiving emails asking about next year’s event, indicating how excited the community was about this opportunity,

As a representative of SoundCitizen from UW Tacoma, I brought an interactive watershed model to demonstrate how vanilla ends up in ocean water. It was fun to talk to youth and see their surprised looks when they learned about the difference between natural and artificial vanilla, how common vanilla is in the environment and how chemicals they use in everyday products end up in marine systems.  One middle school girl told me, “I thought this science festival was going to be kinda boring, but this is really interesting!”

This event was also an opportunity to roll out an exciting new interactive outreach activity for the UW SACNAS Chapter – Match A Scientist.  Youth tried to match pictures of chapter members with a description of what they research.  It was a really fun and surprisingly engaging activity.  Kids would look at photos and say “Look, she’s Mexican!” and “Look, he’s Native!” It was a fun, engaging way for students to see who is doing science and the kinds of science being done at UW! As one middle school student said when they saw the pictures of chapter members, “They’re all scientists?!?!”  Yes we are and you can be one, too!

Amanda Bruner is a Program Coordinator at the University of Washington Tacoma.  Her current positions with SoundCitizen and the Math-Science-Leadership Program are focused on broadening public participation in STEM and bridging university research to local youth and communities.

Outreach Event: Royal High School Students Visit Seattle BioMed

Photo credit: Theresa Britschgi

On Friday, March 16th, 2012, a bus load of Royal High School students traveled over the snowy mountain pass to arrive in Seattle in time for lunch at Seattle BioMed. By the time they got to Seattle, the sun was shining and there were an eager group of scientists waiting for them. This is not the first time we’ve met with the Royal High Students. We met Mario Godoy-Gonzalez, a science teacher at Royal High, several years ago at a SACNAS National Conference. Mario had started a SACNAS Club for his students, and many of them were actively involved, so we decided to form a partnership with the RHS SACNAS Club. For the past few years, we traveled to Royal City to present a workshop on college attendance and assist the students with labs. In June 2011, we brought a group of students from Royal City to the UW campus so they could have hands-on lab experiences and talk to college admissions and financial aid counselors at the UW. Some of our students have also mentored Royal High students at the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research’s Bio Expo each year. So, despite this long-standing relationship, we still like to meet with RHS students as much as possible. Mario contacted me back in February and said his students would be attending a program at Seattle BioMed in March, so I decided to organize a group of students to attend.

The day began with all of the students touring some of Seattle BioMed’s facilities. After that, we got together as a group and introduced ourselves and told our personal stories through graduate school. We were fortunate to have two Royal High alum amongst our ranks: Yuriana Garcia, a UW Sophomore and Abraham Guadarrama, a UW Freshman.

Photo Credit: Theresa Britschgi

Additionally, Katrina Claw, a PhD Candidate in Genome Sciences, Amber Caracol, a Biology Professor at UW Bothell and Seattle Central Community College, Simon Mendoza, a graduate student in Microbiology, and Sabrina Bonaparte (that’s me!), a PhD Candidate in the Sociology Department, attended the event. Simon showed the students glow in the dark bacteria, among other things and gave a great presentation about careers in Microbiology. After we spoke for a while, the students headed to the lab to dissect mosquitos and hear a talk from UW SACNAS Chapter member and RHS alum Abraham Guadarrama. Abraham’s talk was from his LSAMP‘s team research project: University of Washington Engineering Bridge Program: Polymer Synthesis and Mechanical Testing. Abraham provided the following quote describe his experience:

Abraham presenting to the group
Photo Credit: Mario Godoy-Gonzalez

“What better way to learn to ask great questions and always be thinking creatively than to interact with Science!!   Being a former Royal City SACNAS student and being able to share my experiences on how I have got involved in research with my LSAMP group in Polymer Synthesis and Mechanical Testing was a great privilege. After presenting our LSAMP project, I designed a hands on lab where students asked questions on the decomposition of different materials, as I talked about that in my presentation. What I saw was curiosity and the next generation of scientist, they were having fun learning science!!”

The Royal City students seemed to enjoy their time at Seattle BioMed. Here are some quotes from a few students (quotes provided by Theresa Britschgi):

Royal City Bacteria!
Photo Credit: Mario Godoy-Gonzalezstudents (provided from Theresa Britschgi):

“Hoy fue uno de esos pocos dias en el cual es divertido aprendar algo nuevo ya que hoy aprendi y me diverti bastante. Esto fue una gran experiencia que yo pienso que me va a motivar para segir estudiando.” – Royal City student

“BioQuest is a wonderful place. Seattle BioMed will help lots of people if they find a vaccine for malaria – and save a lot of lives.” – Royal City student

Our partnership with Royal High will not end here, as we have other events in the works for this year. Additionally, we have developed a great partnership with Seattle BioMed and plan to return for more high school student visits in the upcoming months.

A special thank-you to Mr. Mario Godoy-Gonzalez, for letting us know of this trip to Seattle, for always working with us and serving to a mentor to our chapter members, and for being a phenomenal role model and mentor for all of your students! Also, a big thank you to Theresa Britschgi, the BioQuest Director at Seattle BioMed for organizing this event, providing photos and quotes, and for inviting us back to meet with other students! We are very excited to continue our partnership with you!

UW SACNAS Chapter members with Mario, our favorite science teacher!
Photo credit: Mario Godoy-Gonzalez

Photo Credit: Theresa Britschgi

Sabrina Bonaparte is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department. Her research areas are Demography, Statistics and Education. She also wrote an earlier blog post about world population and is the manager of the UW SACNAS blog.  

Outreach Event: Sacnistas Volunteer at Seattle Expanding Your Horizons 2012

On Saturday March 10th 2012, at Seattle University in the Capitol Hill, nearly 400 middle school young ladies attended this year’s Seattle Expanding Your Horizons (SEYH) conference event. SEYH is a daylong event where girls from Seattle and surrounding areas are given the opportunity to participate in workshops in the STEM fields. This event is particularly special because local women in the STEM fields are encouraged to design and host workshops. Women biologists, engineers, physicists, and many other local professional women volunteer their time annually to host hands-on workshops that introduce girls to exciting careers involving math, science and computer technology. Most importantly, this conference allows young girls the opportunity to meet and interact with many women in a variety of STEM fields.

This year, several of our UW SACNAS chapter members volunteered with SEYH. I chose to host a microbiology-based workshop with the help of two other women in the UW MCB graduate program. With support from the BioQuest program at Seattle Biomed, a program devoted to introducing high school students to laboratory science, we designed a short workshop using fluorescent bacteria and common household antibacterial agents. After briefly introducing some interesting facts about bacteria, the girls were asked to mix the non-infectious bacteria provided with several different cleaning products including Lysol, bleach, Febreze, antibacterial soaps and natural cleaners. We then “fed” the bacteria a biochemical substrate that when metabolized fluoresces bright yellow. Using handheld black lights and goggles, the young ladies explored which reagents could kill the bacteria and result in no fluorescence in comparison to their bright yellow untreated control.

This activity proved quite popular with most participants, but as a presenter, what I really enjoyed was the time we spent talking with the girls in between the lab protocol steps. During this time, my partner presenters and I discussed our academic background, how we ended up in the sciences and what we plan to do in the future. The girls also shared their experiences with science and talked about whether they were thinking of studying science in college. This was a very important portion of the workshop, providing the girls with diverse personal stories of finding a career path in research.

Also participating was UW Sacnista Natalie Garcia, a PhD student in Medicinal Chemistry. A few of her pictures are posted in the gallery below. Sacnista Tzitziki Lemus also spent some time speaking to the parents of the girls about our SACNAS chapter. She represented us well!

Can’t wait to participate next year. I hope that even more local women in science will be inspired to get involved either as a workshop presenter or event volunteer!

Erica Sanchez is originally from northern California, where I attended UCDavis for my Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology. I am currently a second year graduate student in the Molecular and Cellular Biology program at the UW and the UW SACNAS chapter Secretary.

Outreach Event: Teaching Science at the Denise Louie Education Center

On Monday, March 12th, I spent an entire day in lead teacher Brandon Blake‘s full day classroom at the Denise Louie Education Center in the International District of Seattle. Denise Louie is a Head Start Center, and this was a multi-lingual classroom. The classroom is a diverse group of students. The classroom is comprised of 42% Chinese students, 11% Vietnamese students, 26% White students, 11% Black students and 11% Latino students. 68% of the students in the classroom’s first language was a language other than English, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish and Amharic.  The teachers also represent a wide variety of ethnicities: Uzbek, ethnically Chinese from Vietnam, Mexican, and a substitute present in the class who was Vietnamese. And then there is Brandon, who is a 3rd generation American of Russian/Polish Jewish descent.

As the long-time partner of a preschool teacher (Brandon), I’m no stranger to the classroom, but I’ve actually never taught a lesson before. Brandon could tell I was a little nervous, which I was, particularly because I feared losing the interest and attention of the kids. Once I began my lesson, this was no longer a concern. The classroom was full of kids who were incredibly polite, attentive, and very knowledgeable about science!

Doing Science

We began circle time by Teacher Brandon telling his students that I was a scientist and I came to class to teach them about science. He then asked, “Who in this room is a scientist?” Every student raised their hand enthusiastically, so I knew the lesson would be off to a good start. We continued by singing a song about the planets in our solar system. Teacher Brandon cut the song a little short from what I remembered learning as a kid, since Pluto is no longer considered a planet. When he informed his students of this modification to the song, one of them raised her hand and said, “Pluto is not a planet, it’s a dwarf planet.” I see we have another future female astronaut in the ranks! Next, Brandon asked his students, “Who was the first person in space?” to which all of them replied, “Yuri Gagarin!” I know very few adults that can remember his name, let alone pronounce it properly!

We moved on to my activity, which involved counting Skittles. I’ve done this activity before with both middle and high school students, but had to consult Brandon as to how to make it appropriate for 3-5 year old scientists. Usually, is similar to this one, which teaches about elementary statistics:

1) Divide students into small groups and count Skittles or M&M’s to see if the color distribution in the bags is similar to what is reported by the Mars Company as the average color distribution of each bag
2) Make pie graphs using Excel after the students have taken the frequency of each color and divided it by the total number of candy in the bag
3) Compare the pie graphs to what Mars says a bag should be and we can see which colors are over or underrepresented in each bag
4)  Talk about the various uses of statistics and how and why sampling techniques are sometimes vital to obtain data

For preschoolers, I adapted the activity as follows:

1) Identify each color in the Skittles bag in English, Spanish and Cantonese
2) Guess the total number of Skittles in the bag. Guesses ranged from 1 to 20,100 (as he pronounced twenty-hundred)!
3) Taking inspiration from a book in their class called “Yummy Colors“, identify what foods are the same colors as each color Skittle
4) Count the number of each color together, out loud as a class, while Teacher Brandon draws a histogram on a large piece of paper behind me. Since Mars says there are 13 of each color in each bag, Brandon draws a dark line at 13 and students identify if the number of each color is over or under the expected amount.
5) Count all of the colors  together using the tick marks in the Histogram. The students counted to 64 (all the while, Brandon joked that they must be too tired counting so high and surely may need to stop at 50)!!

Believe it or not, with the exception of calculating percentages, this activity was largely the same as what I would do with a much older group! The students had no difficulty whatsoever, even counting to 64. According to Brandon, this activity also incorporated developmental learning objectives for preschoolers such as quantification, numeration and grouping. In other words, these kids are learning math. In fact, they already knew it!

Incorporating the Skittles Activity into Existing Curriculum

I wanted to be sure I incorporated my lesson into the current curriculum, so in doing so, we brought the lesson full-circle back to space. I explained that while Skittles were very easy to classify because they were all the same size but different colors, some other things in science are not as easy to classify. For example, if an astronomer looks into a telescope and sees a celestial object that they’ve never seen before, how do they classify it? To prove this point, we set up tables with rocks of various colors and sizes and asked the kids to classify them however they wanted. Immediately, a few students began placing all of the big rocks in one pile and the small rocks in another pile. Others were placing light rocks in one pile and dark rocks in another. By the end of the activity, the students had rearranged various rock piles several times due to different classification systems.

I decided to stay the entire day since I was having so much fun working with the kids. In the afternoon, the lesson was making “astronaut food” out of playdough. Since I was the resident scientist of the day, I had to explain the kinds of foods that astronauts can and cannot eat while in space. I told them that astronauts eat M&Ms in space while they are floating in the air. They latched on to this and many of the students made candy to take with them to space. One student made a pizza, cut up slices of chicken and a perfectly-shaped dumpling (pressed closed with beautiful fork marks). Perhaps the astronauts would enjoy their food more if their menu were designed by preschoolers!


As the partner of a long-time preschool teacher, I have always seen the value of preschool education first-hand, but as a sociologist and a scholar of education and stratification, I also see it from a larger lens encompassing empirical studies of the value of preschool education on preventing future incarceration and high school graduation. Programs like these are vitally important to students and to their community as a whole, and it is encouraging to see that these students are taking such as strong interest in science at such a young age.  These students prove that science education can never begin too early, and one possible way to close the gender gap or the achievement gap for certain ethnicities is to begin when kids are in preschool, since, as my new young friends taught me at the beginning of class, they’re already scientists!


These are some of my favorite photos from the class. Special thanks to Teacher James for the great photos! Also, a big thank you Teachers Anh and Gulchehra for welcoming me and letting me help lead your class!

Sabrina Bonaparte is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department. Her research areas are Demography, Statistics and Education. She also wrote an earlier blog post about world population and is the manager of the UW SACNAS blog.