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A View from the Inside

In every industry, in good economies and in bad, the need exists for skilled entry-level workers. But how do those workers of the future gain needed skills? Photonics Spectra is pleased to launch a column featuring efforts in the US and around the world to prepare students for successful careers in optics and photonics.

Judy Donnelly, program coordinator for the Laser and Fiber Optic Technology program at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Conn., is an education insider who will curate this monthly column.

Donnelly is the 2012 winner of OSA’s Esther Hoffman Beller Medal recognizing outstanding contributions to optical science and engineering education, and dedication to engaging middle/high school and college students in optical science and engineering. She is also the 2003 winner of the SPIE Educator Award.

To get things started, Photonics Spectra recently asked Donnelly 10 questions.

Q: How long have you been in your current position, and how has your work there changed over the years?

A: I started at Three Rivers as a math/physics/electronics technology instructor in 1978, when it was a two-year technical college; we merged with a local community college in 1992. During the 1980s, I became interested in developing new physics labs to take advantage of more modern pedagogy and participated in several workshops on computer instruction in physics. I convinced the administration to purchase six Mac II computers with an interface that would allow us to use motion, force, temperature and other sensors – state of the art for that time – and wrote a lab manual to go with them.

In 1995, I jumped at the chance to participate in a grant funded by the Advanced Technological Education program of the National Science Foundation (NSF/ATE), the Fiber Optic Technology Education Project (FOTEP) of the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE). The three-year program began with a workshop at Springfield (Mass.) Technical Community College, where I met such wonderful people and had such a great time [that] I drove home thinking I’d ask my dean if I could develop an elective course on fiber optics. His reply was, “Why don’t you start a program?” I agreed at once, and we convened an industry advisory committee. In 1997, the board of trustees approved our Photonics Engineering Technology program, now called Laser and Fiber Optic Technology.

Since then, the program has grown from four students to around 30; the peak was 45, when we had enough instructors to run day and evening classes. About 10 years ago, a second instructor was hired who developed and modernized the electronics part of the program so I could concentrate on optics. Together, we developed several distance learning courses and did a lot of off-campus training (including distance learning) at photonics companies in Connecticut. We worked with the CT Regional Center for Next Generation Manufacturing (an NSF/ATE-funded center) and the laser industry of southern New England to develop an associate degree in laser manufacturing – the first in New England.

At our new campus since 2008, we now have three optics and electro-optics labs. We have active SPIE and OSA student chapters, whose members have done outreach in fifth-grade classrooms and run workshops at our annual laser camp for high school students and junior laser camp for fifth-graders. The outreach helps them work on their “soft” skills while they’re learning technical material in the classroom.

Q: Why is it so important for the optics and photonics industry to be talking now about educating the workforce of tomorrow?

A: While preparing some recent grant applications, I read many articles on industry in general (not just optics and photonics) complaining that they can’t find the educated, skilled workers they need. But they must understand that it requires a partnership between industry and education to create this workforce.

An excellent example is the Dominion Nuclear Connecticut scholarship program at Three Rivers. Dominion supports 16 full scholarships, including summer internships at the local Millstone nuclear power plant. Because they can be highly selective in choosing candidates and work closely with the college to provide resources for teaching, students are ready to step into jobs at graduation.

Q: What do you hear from industry about its greatest needs and concerns regarding its future workforce?

A: We meet yearly with our industry advisory committee to find out how we’re doing. So, this is New England-centric, but what we hear from them is that our students have great technical skills, but they need to work on critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and communication. We’re addressing that through problem-based learning, using “Challenges” developed through NSF/ATE grants to NEBHE based on real-world problems solved by partner companies and research universities.

Q: What do you consider your biggest challenges today in providing the best education program in laser and fiber optic technologies, and how have your challenges changed over the past 10 years?

A: I think the challenges have been pretty constant over the years, although the reorganization of the community colleges and state universities in Connecticut may produce a whole new set of challenges over the next couple of years.

Being a program coordinator is like owning a small business; there are so many hats to wear: marketing and recruiting, lab management, actual teaching (my favorite part), curriculum development and review, industry relations, job placement for students and, of course, trying to stay current with the technology. A lot of technology programs (like mine) comprise one full-time faculty member and a few adjunct faculty who are on campus only a few hours per week.

Q: What is industry’s role in educating its future workforce, and how has it changed over the years? How should it change over the next 10 years?

A: In career programs like mine, industry support is vital, since our “product” is their technical workforce. When we started our program, we had good support from a couple of local companies – donations of equipment, internships, even a scholarship program. But most of that support disappeared with the telecom crash. We are beginning to work more closely once again with industry as their hiring needs pick up on projects like industry-supported student capstone projects.

The best way for students to start a career with high-level technical skills (and attitudes) is through internships; this is where I’d like to see more industry support. I hear complaints sometimes that our graduates don’t have a specific skill that a company is looking for. Where are they going to learn that skill? We have an excellent laboratory filled with basic equipment, but it would not be cost-effective for us to purchase very expensive specialized equipment to train students for two to three job openings that may or may not materialize at one company. Internships would allow students to learn specific skills and give companies a chance to “preview” workers at the same time.

Q: What would you most like the optics and photonics industry to know about the work being done and yet to be done to train its workforce of tomorrow?

A: Industry should know that we can’t do it alone; we need to be partners in this effort. We’re doing the best we can to respond to their needs as they articulate them through yearly advisory meetings. But we are limited, especially in state institutions, by budget considerations.

Q: Tell us about one of your favorite optics and photonics education programs currently under way somewhere in the world.

A: It’s hard to choose just one! Through the four NEBHE NSF/ATE optics and photonics projects, I’ve met so many wonderful people running exceptional programs to both excite the next generation of students and teach the current generation. Some of the most interesting projects I’ve come across are run by student chapters of OSA and SPIE. I’ve reviewed outreach grant proposals for both societies, and the energy and enthusiasm of students is remarkable. One of these is Les Jeux Photoniques at Laval University in Québec [City]. I’ve heard presentations on their program, and the enthusiasm and excitement are palpable.

Q: There has been a lot of talk in the past few years about strengthening STEM education. What are your thoughts on that?

A: Absolutely. I agree that we need to be doing this. The problem I see is that teachers themselves did not necessarily have STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] training, and that makes it difficult for them to teach it. This is one reason we do outreach in classrooms, to help teachers who weren’t trained in optics to teach concepts to their students.

Also, people often see it as “S-T-E-M”– that is, four separate subjects taught separately rather than an interdisciplinary way of looking at the world. I see this all the time when I teach a math topic (say logarithms) as part of an optics course and students say, “It makes sense when you do it.” That’s because it’s not a topic taught in isolation; there’s a practical reason for learning. When we do our outreach workshops, we always emphasize the practical applications of the science to give it some context.

Q: We have been talking for decades about how to get more girls and young women interested in math and science. Do you see anything working anywhere, or do you think there are different approaches to try?

A: As I understand it, the number of girls in high school math and science classes is much higher than in my day, but girls’ interest in engineering and science careers is still low. I think a big part of the problem is that girls don’t see women who are engineers and scientists, so they don’t see themselves growing up to have a career like that. I became a science major because my dad, a mechanical engineer, used to like to explain how things worked. Going out at night to look for Sputnik and the aurora borealis piqued my interest in science and technology.

Q: Is there more the industry can do to recognize and perhaps support dedicated teachers?

A: From my position running a small program at a community college, the best support would be to make sure on the state level the appropriate officials and legislators know that technology programs – and those who teach them – are vital to their success. Beyond that, when they support my students with internships and mentoring, they are supporting me.


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