Graduate student Adam Kuang releases a magnet into a copper pipe, while an expectant student waits to catch it, during AAAS Family Science Days.

Paul Rivenberg

Connecting with kids at AAAS

Paul Rivenberg  |  PSFC

Graduate student Libby Tolman dropped a small magnet down a copper tube to the expectant hand of a six-year old child, and used it to explain eddy currents. Her colleague Alex Creely used makeshift props to explain quantum tunneling to a curious middle school student and his mother. PSFC administrator Jessica Coco knelt among a group of children, encouraging them to light the plasma sword.

On President’s Day weekend the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was celebrating science, with the help of national and local laboratories and programs, including the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC).  Over 5000 people toured some 33 exhibits at the Hynes Auditorium in Boston during AAAS Family Science Days, February 18 and 19.

The graduate students who staffed the PSFC booth were excited to be connecting with a new audience: K-8 school children and their parents. They enjoyed seeing how demonstrations designed for middle and high school students could easily engage even the youngest participants at this event.

Excited young people lined up to play a Tokamak Video Game, each controlling a virtual magnet to help confine plasma fuel in a fusion reactor. They watched multiple compasses switch directions in a demonstration of electromagnetism. They bet on which magnet would make it to the bottom of its incline first  - the one sliding on plastic, on aluminum or on copper. And they couldn’t wait to get their hands on the plasma sword, so they could create a neon plasma simply by completing a circuit with their fingers.

Graduate student Norman Cao demonstrates how an electric current changes a gas into a plasma, using a "plasma sword."

PSFC Outreach Coordinator Paul Rivenberg noted that while children were busy catching magnets and pressing buttons, parents would ask about current MIT research. “They were impressed to learn that MIT has a history of building fusion tokamaks on campus, and to hear about the many spinoff applications of plasma research.”

The booth attracted not only families, but also media. Graduate student Alex Tinguely spoke with Quartz media about fusion, and instantly became part of a snap chat video. He and Alex Creely were both enlisted by NOVA/PBS to participate in the #ThankYouScience campaign, posing with the hash tag and endorsing MIT’s fusion research program.

Alex Tinguely and Alex Creely film their spot for NOVA.

For Shiva Mandala, a Chemistry graduate student studying at the Francis Bitter Magnet Laboratory, it was a first experience with PSFC outreach.

“I thought the outreach process was a lot of fun! The scientific demos presented were fascinating, which was apparent in the reactions of the children as well as the adults attending the conference. I was surprised to see how interested the adults were in the demos and the science; they were just as curious as their kids. The demo where we drop a magnet down a copper tube, which slows its descent, especially drew a lot of 'oohs' and 'aahs' from the audience, and I think made a powerful impact on a lot of people. “

Shiva Mandala and Libby Tolman begin the magnet races.

Libby Tolman summed up the experience for most of the graduate students and administrators who manned the booth.

“It was great to see adults and children excited together about science.”

PSFC education programs are sponsored in part by the U.S Department of Energy, Office of Fusion Energy Sciences.


Topics: Plasma science