Graduate student Adam Kuang (back right) invites students from Merrimack MIddle School to pick up a hefty permanent magnet and observe how it affects plasma in the vacuum tube.

Paul Rivenberg

School year's end brings increased demand for PSFC outreach


The MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) has always been a popular destination for middle and high school science classes seeking to learn more about the latest fusion research and associated plasma technologies. The end of the school year, from May through June, tends to be the busiest for many reasons. PSFC outreach coordinator Paul Rivenberg notes, “After MCAS testing, schools are often free to step off the beaten track and explore new areas, or deepen their students’ understanding of energy alternatives.”

The breadth of testing this year pushed the PSFC’s Middle School Outreach Day to early June. This Open House invites teachers and students from around Massachusetts to investigate fusion and related science. Over 60 students and teachers from 13 schools attended, touring Alcator C-Mod, the high-field tokamak that recently completed its final run, and the High-Energy-Density Physics (HEDP) laboratory. Along the way they played a video game that revealed how magnets control the hot plasmas fusing inside tokamaks, and explored the movement of luminous plasma in a vacuum tube. They fractured flowers recently dipped in liquid nitrogen, and helped create the amber glow of plasma inside a dill pickle.

PSFC graduate student Libby Tolman, who provided the introduction to fusion research, was impressed with the students’ questions about fusion and magnetism. “I definitely did not know as much as they do when I was in middle school.”

Bourne Middle School teacher Bob Ruggiero, who has participated in this Open House over several years, noticed the program’s effect on his students. “They really enjoyed the plasma and magnet demonstrations and the ability to participate in the experiments. Afterward I had the chance to talk as we walked the campus and I was so pleased to hear of their dreams and thoughts for the future. Yesterday’s visit helped to make that dream more vivid.”

The first week of June also brought a visit from Merrimack Middle School in New Hampshire. The students got the added bonus of some time with PSFC Director, Dennis Whyte, who stopped by to welcome the group. In the process he offered them ways to think about fusion, and spontaneously choreographed the fusing of atoms, with willing students standing in for charged particles and neutrons.

 PSFC Director Dennis Whyte invites Merrimack Middle School students to act like charged particles in a demonstration of how elements fuse. 

Students were intrigued with what they saw and learned. Tim Yon noted, "I think that what you guys are doing is very cool and holds the key to stopping global warming. I think that powering cities and homes is just one of the applications. When battery powered cars have made their run, cars could one day be fusion powered." His classmate Rohan Sreenivansan wrote, "Touring the fusion lab made me realize that MIT is able to create innovative solutions that will change the way citizens live."

Their teacher, Susan Heimberg, explains, “As a middle school Technology Education teacher, I try to help students make connections between what they are learning in school, and potential career opportunities in technology. At the PSFC, not only did my students see the value of studying math and science, they realized the importance of using this knowledge to make a positive contribution to the world.”

PSFC outreach would not be possible without the dedicated assistance of the Center’s graduate students. The practice they get in making the complex topic of fusion clear and interesting to the general public could be key to mustering future support for science and engineering projects.

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

Topics: Magnetic fusion energy, Plasma science, Technology & engineering, Dennis Whyte