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UCLAToday Staff

Even though it's Saturday, Walter Gekelman's  physics lab on the west end of campus pulses with activity as students create space plasma in a device worth $40,000 that they've fabric

Physics professor Walter Gekelman (left) helps high school science teachers set up an experiment on a plasma device built, mostly of spare parts . ated out of exotic spare parts for much less.

Scrounging vacuum pumps, capacitors and assorted parts from surplus and bargain bins at the Los Alamos  Lab, TRW and other facilities, Gekelman's Saturday class has built a machine that will propel them light years beyond the boring "cookbook-style" physics experiments that are typically part of the high school science curriculum.

High school, you say?

Since June, 10 physics teachers from Los Angeles high schools have given up their Saturdays to work at  Gekelman's facility conducting advanced experiments in a lab that no K-12 school district in the country could ever duplicate.

  "This is really frontline stuff," said Gekelman proudly. "This is probably the only high school plasma physics lab in the country."

  Teachers will soon be sharing these adventures with their students, who will start coming to the UCLA facility in a few months.

  "Certain students will get into an environment like this and just take off," said the physics professor. Gekelman is a volunteer and one of the most active supporters of  a group called LAPTAG — the Los Angeles Physics Teachers Alliance Group — which brings together high school teachers and faculty from nearby colleges and universities for the love of science.

  While working on the edge of science turns students on to the thrill of discovery, what it does for the teachers is nothing short of inspirational.

  "Where else in the world could I get a chance to work on equipment like this?" said Bob Coutts, who teaches physics and research methods at Van Nuys High  School. "Just getting to hang out at a lab like this is an amazing opportunity. And for my students, it's a real motivational tool."

  Plasma physics is not the only game in town for LAPTAG. The group, which has grown over six years to 60 members in 32 institutions, has launched an online astronomy course as well.

  In fact, the teachers' astral observations, using the Mount Wilson telescope, led to the discovery of a variable star by Joseph Wise from Crossroads School and  Steve Cooperman from Westridge School. "That really got them excited," Gekelman said.

Last week, teachers and students at 10 area high schools used seismometers  purchased with a U.S. Department of Energy grant to collect data from a series of planned underground explosions across Los Angeles County that were set off by  seismic researchers. LAPTAG teachers and students calibrated the seismometers and used them and global positioning satellite clocks to mark the arrival times of ground waves produced by the explosions.

  In addition to the DOE grant, the group has picked up two grants from UCOP. Any physics teacher is welcome to join, said Gekelman, "as long as they are willing to do the work."

  Gekelman became involved with LAPTAG six years ago after observing that undergraduates taking his physics courses were poorly prepared in math and science.

  "I guess I griped to my colleagues. But you don't really have the right to gripe unless you try something and nobody cares," he said. Somebody, however, did.

  For more information on the alliance, go to .http:

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