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LAPTAG-A Physics Outreach Program at UCLA

By Walter Gekelman

I have taught undergraduate physics courses at UCLA since the late 1970's. As the years rolled by it seemed, to me, that the incoming students' mathematical background and general science preparation eroded little by little. The natural thing to do was to blame the high schools that sent them to us on a wave of grade inflation.

In 1993, at the urging of one of my colleagues, I attended a meeting sponsored by the AAPT on encouraging the formation of alliances between universities and high schools. I went to the meeting under the assumption that it would lead nowhere and give me a perpetual right to gripe. There were several presentations about alliances (mostly involving several high schools and not universities), but what struck me was the great number of high school teachers present who were very interested in their craft: teaching. It was obvious that those present were dedicated and loved their work. In the afternoon we broke into groups based on physical proximity of schools and the group I was in decided to form an alliance which exists to this day. We called it LAPTAG (Los Angeles Physics Teachers Alliance Group).

At the outset most of our activities consisted of going on tours of many fascinating laboratories at UCLA and then expanding this with tours at USC, JPL, General Atomics fusion laboratory, and the Mount Wilson observatory. We also met on Saturdays and discussed education reform and classroom demonstrations. About ten other alliances formed the day of the meeting and we are the only one that survived. I believe the reason for this is the introduction of projects to our venue. We used one of the computers in my plasma physics laboratory as a web server and hosted a website for every school. In those days this meant teaching the high school teachers and their students how to write HTML and download pictures. Now most of the schools have servers of their own and some have sophisticated websites. We still host websites for about a dozen schools as well as the LAPTAG home page (http://coke.physics.ucla.edu/laptag).

The first substantial project was funded by the University of California Office of the President. It involved earthquake study (we have small temblors in Southern California nearly every day). We secured funding to buy 10 seismometers that interfaced with PC's and gave them to schools that were interested. Two of the LAPTAGer's were geologists and gave us lectures on what earthquakes were and how to bury the seismometers. We also had a series of lectures on ways to complement what they were learning in school. At this time we wrote a proposal to the NSF education division to substantially expand the project (we also had several hundred thousand dollars in matching equipment and software) but met with a great deal of frustration. We did not neatly fit into any of their programs and gave up after trying twice. Although several schools are still using the seismometers, a high point of that project was a presentation of six posters at the 1998 APS March meeting in Los Angeles. We brought a schoolbus full of high school students to the meeting and they had a wonderful and exciting time presenting the results.

Our next project was the construction of a plasma physics laboratory, which would be for the exclusive use of LAPTAG. I am a plasma physicist by trade and the Department of Energy (DOE) has now supplemented one of my grants three times in the past three years to help with the project. We used a surplus vacuum chamber and bought some refurbished pumps, gauges and so on. This was supplemented with "spare" equipment from my lab. The machine features a helicon source, which is safe and very easily run. The high school teachers and their students designed the antenna, solenoidal magnets, as well as the vacuum flanges with some help from one of my colleagues, Pat Pribyl, and myself. Ten additional LAPTAG students and teachers built the machine over the course of a summer. It has now been running for about three years. Figure 1 shows the experiment and plasma.

Figure 1: The experiment and plasma
 Figure 1: The experiment and plasma

In the past three years we have, with financial support from the DOE, added a computerized stepping motor control system (built and programmed by the students), 4 channels of 100 MHz digitizers, and soon an optical fiber based spectrum analyzer. Data is acquired using Labview software, and Visual Numerics has donated a copy of PVwave for data analysis. The high school students and their teachers use equipment and software similar to what we use in our research laboratory.

One of the experiments is on ion acoustic waves. The waves are launched by a grid antenna and detected by a Langmuir probe, which is moved with respect to the grid.

The propagation velocity of a tone-burst is used to determine the plasma electron temperature (Figure 2). In a parallel experiment on sound waves in air the students measure the sound speed and air temperature. The speed of the two waves is compared. This is complemented by lectures and a lab manual (both on the website).

Figure 2: Ion Acoustic Wave
 Figure 2: Comparing speed of two waves

In some sense the tide of science education has turned towards large programs, sometimes involving many universities and still more high schools. It is a way to try and solve the problems that seem to plague our secondary school system, in one fell swoop. It is also heartening to see that other scientists working with middle and high schools. Perhaps one of these programs will work; time will tell. LAPTAG has not set out with any such ambition. It is a purely local attempt to have high schools benefit from the resources of a nearby University. Although the LAPTAG teachers have had many discussions about what a high school syllabus should be, and have followed and debated the content of the California and national standards with interest, we are savvy enough to know we can't change any of this. These are political decisions. From our experience with the NSF Division of Education we also realized that programs such as ours are not fundable from their point of view. We have no close connection to graduate schools of education and the vocabulary necessary to write a successful grant proposal, and from what we know now, no desire to administer and assess it, although we fully understand why program assessment is important to the NSF. Our tactic has been to utilize resources available at UCLA, spare equipment and small grants, to do what we can. Since UCLA is a large university and the Large Plasma Device (affectionately called the LAPD) Plasma Lab has resources as well, building the high school plasma lab was possible. One can't be as ambitious at a smaller college, but something always can be done. It all depends on a resource more precious, the dedication of a group of people1.

Is LAPTAG a success? The participating teachers have certainly benefited and had a good time. They are involved in designing and teaching laboratory experiments using sophisticated equipment not available in their schools. In addition they and their students can relate measurements in the LAPTAG plasma lab to the physics and math they are teaching. I have had a good time working with the teachers and students and am happy to donate the necessary hours. As for the high school students it's hard to say. There was a tremendous variation in the students that have come through the plasma lab. Some were, in my opinion, good enough to skip whatever they had left in high school and directly come to UCLA or any other university. Others were there for the ride, sometimes accompanying friends. None of them seemed bored, some were downright enthusiastic. At the very least they completed the lab with a feeling about how science is done. Who knows, one or two one day may be first-class scientists. So is LAPTAG a success? Maybe.

We can summarize what we learned so far with the following points.

  • Universities have a great deal to offer high schools.
  • For an alliance to be successful in must-have projects.
  • The involve faculty in both high schools and universities must be committed.
  • Expect no monetary resources — you must get them yourself.
  • National aspiration will get in the way — it's all local.
  • Don't expect quantitative outcomes.

Walter Gekelman is Professor of Physics at the University of California, Los Angeles. This article is based on his presentation at the Physics Department Chairs Conference at APS headquarters in June 2002.

1. When asked what the most valuable thing in the world was, a Chinese philosopher answered "The head of a dead cat, because no one can name the price." Perhaps our group is of equal value.

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