Online Class Lets Students Control 50,000-Degree Plasma

Peter Suciu for – Your Universe Online

Anyone who has a plasma TV in their living room likely knows those things give off a bit of heat, but few understand why. Most of us just focus on the life-like pictures on the screen. But nowadays, the scientifically curious can take part in open online courses like those offered by Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare and iTunes U to learn about the science behind how nature and technology work. And the American Physical Society reported this week that the growing trend in online physics classes that will actually enable students to interact with real physical experiments.

This was one of the key reports presented at the 55th Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society’s (APS) Division of Plasma Physics (DPP), which is being held this week in Denver, Colorado.

Typically, online courses have relied on virtual labs that only simulate laboratory environments. This week the United States Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Laboratory (PPPL) announced that it has developed software for an experiment that can be observed and controlled from anywhere in the world. So while many of us might settle for trying to figure out why that plasma TV gives off more heat than a comparable LCD screen, students can take part in an online open-user experiment that could turn the heat up even more, specifically, from a 50,000-degree plasma.

The user can operate the experiment with a set up that can be observed and controlled from anywhere in the world. This particular experiment, “Remote Glow Discharge Experiment (RGDX),” allows users to operate the experiment via remote control and can watch the effect of the apparatus at PPPL via streaming web video.

The APS noted that this experiment consists of three main component that include, “A live-streaming video that constantly observes an experimental apparatus housed at PPPL; A set of online controls; and Information that explains what the user observes and controls, plus more in-depth resources that explore plasma and its uses.”

The RGDX consists of a hollow glass tube that holds air in a vacuum, and users can supply a surge of up to 2000 volts to generate a glow within it. The remote user can take complete control of the pressure inside the tube, and is guided through steps that gradually increase their level of engagement. This helps the users to understand new physical concepts,  and those who want to go even deeper into the physics behind the phenomenon can find explanations for a variety of topics, including the physics behind the voltages, pressures and magnets.

The audience for the RGDX could be wide ranging, and include someone merely interested in controlling physical apparatus from afar, to undergraduate and graduate level students who are interested in studying the effects of phenomena such as various instabilities in plasma and even the physics behind it.

RGDX has been designed as a novel experiment, but also as part of an in-class physics course. The researchers noted that the software could be adapted to an array of far reaching experiments in the field of physics as well as other sciences.

The APS is a non-profit membership organization, which works to advance knowledge of physics through research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy and international activities. This group currently represents more than 50,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories and industry in the United States and throughout the world.

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