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ETOP - Meeting the Future of Global Optics Education

Every couple of years, scientists, technicians and educators in optics and photonics come together to discuss and demonstrate the latest approaches to teaching in these fields at ETOP, the International Conference on Education and Training in Optics and Photonics.

ETOP 2013, to be held July 23-26 in Porto, Portugal, is sponsored by The Optical Society (OSA); SPIE, the International Society for Optics and Photonics; IEEE, the Photonics Society; and ICO, the International Commission on Optics. It is jointly organized by the Portugal and Tunisia Territorial Committees of the ICO. The conference chairs are Manuel Filipe P.C. Martins Costa of the University of Minho in Portugal and Mourad Zghal of the University of Carthage in Tunis, Tunisia. The event will be collocated with RIAO/OPTILAS 2013, the VIII Iberoamerican Optics Meeting and the XI Latinamerican Meeting on Optics, Lasers and Applications.

With the event fast approaching, Kathleen Robinson, manager of education services at SPIE, and Kathryn Amatrudo, deputy senior director of membership and education at OSA, answered a few questions about the upcoming meeting and the conference itself.

Q: How have the concerns or needs that helped create the first event changed over the years?

Amatrudo: The increasing importance of the state teaching standards in the US has made it critical to effectively incorporate optics and photonics into the curriculum. The grade level in which the science of light is taught – usually Grades 5-9, depending on the state – dictates how OSA designs our education materials. It’s important to keep these standards and their global equivalents in mind when discussing integrating optics and photonics into the classroom.

Robinson: Though undergraduate- and MS-level education, along with interaction between academia and industry, have remained important subjects, the topics of ETOP have expanded to include K-12 education, outreach activities, computer-based training, and interactive and online learning. There continues to be an interest in curricula and a focus on how to interest students in the field and to meet the needs of industry.

Q: How is the event’s agenda influenced by factors such as the global economy, or by initiatives such as Photonics21 or Harnessing Light?

Robinson: The ETOP conference is influenced by both political and economic factors. For instance, the upheaval in Tunisia caused the event’s Long Range Advisory Committee to make the difficult decision to cancel the 2011 conference that was scheduled for that area. The slow world economy is also a concern to the supporters of ETOP, since the success of the meeting relies heavily on support from government agencies and institutions of higher learning. The recent cut in the National Academy of Sciences’ funding was cause for concern, since the NAS has traditionally provided significant travel support for a number of ETOP participants.

For initiatives such as Photonics21 and Harnessing Light, the conference has provided an international forum allowing proponents to increase awareness of their efforts and to publish their findings. An example of this was the paper “Harnessing Light: the Study and an Update,” presented by well-known optics education advocate Art Guenther at the 2001 ETOP conference in Singapore. Dr. Guenther’s paper summarized the COSE [Committee on Optical Science and Engineering] report by the National Research Council, which talked about current and future needs to assure the field’s vitality. It outlined the report’s principal recommendations and highlighted other significant US and global activities.

Amatrudo: The global political and economic climates are important factors the committee considers when planning ETOP. We believe it is critical to make this opportunity for collaboration and learning available to both developed and developing countries and strive to bring ETOP to all corners of the globe. That being said, we’ve run into roadblocks in the past – for example, the 2012 ETOP in Tunisia was canceled … [last] year in light of the civil unrest in the region. [Editor’s note: ETOP was scheduled in Tunisia in both 2011 and 2012.]

ETOP also provides supporters of international initiatives like Photonics21 and Harnessing Light an opportunity to share research, market trends, the economics of optics and goals to advance the scientific field. Working in conjunction with government initiatives like these is critical for advancing STEM (science, technology, education and mathematics) education goals globally.

Q: What do you believe to be the most pressing needs for optics and photonics education at this time? How about in five to 10 years?

Amatrudo: Ensuring that optics and photonics, and its practical application, are well-known among young science enthusiasts and those entering college study is of utmost concern. At many universities, optics and photonics courses are either not offered or scattered among the physics and engineering department curriculums. Greater public awareness would help draw these distinctive fields of study out so more students are aware of the career opportunities available.

Robinson: Personally, I would say that increasing public awareness of the importance of optics and photonics to the modern world is the current major challenge. Though the applications of optical technologies are ubiquitous in our everyday lives, few people are even familiar with the words “optics” and “photonics,” and [most] have very little knowledge of their role. Increasing awareness is the first step in developing the educated workforce that is needed for the technology to advance.

Over time, we need to continue to assess the workforce needs of industry and help our educational institutions be responsive to those needs.

Optical and photonic technologies have come of age in the 21st century and will play a critical role in the future of our world. Education will position us to be instrumental in that future.

Q: What would you say to someone from industry to encourage him or her to attend a meeting for the first time?

Robinson: I would encourage someone from industry to attend ETOP in order to take advantage of this unique opportunity to meet with educators in the field, to discuss what they are looking for in prospective employees, to provide input and to influence the future direction of optics education. It can give a company the advantage of knowing which institutions are producing the kinds of students most likely to make their company competitive and successful.

In addition, there could be the opportunity to find potential institutions to partner with on setting up internships and problem-based learning projects.

Someone from industry attending ETOP could also gain insight on how academia and industry can work together to meet each other’s needs.

Amatrudo: Optics and photonics are critical fields at the core of today’s global scientific and technological infrastructure, and how we teach them must continually be enhanced and adapted in order to meet the growing demands of the industry.

Industry professionals bring unique insight that makes for productive discussions with their counterparts in academia. This collaboration and information sharing helps educators at all levels better prepare the future generations of scientists and researchers that will become the innovators of tomorrow’s industrial applications.



Industry and academia team up for education

Since 1988, SPIE and OSA have sponsored the International Conference on Education in Optics, known as ETOP. The first meeting, initiated by SPIE’s Academic Advisory Committee, focused on undergraduate- and master’s-level programs in optics and related fields, the supply and demand for graduates, and academia-industry interaction.

The first ETOP was held in conjunction with SPIE’s annual meeting in San Diego. It brought together scientists, technicians and educators to discuss educational programs and the opportunities and challenges for graduates.

The second conference was held in 1991 in St. Petersburg, Russia, for which the ICO joined the founding organizations as a co-sponsor.

From there, ETOP became a biennial meeting that has been held in Pecs, Hungary; Delft, Netherlands; Cancun, Mexico; Singapore; Marseille, France; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; and St. Asaph, Wales, in addition to San Diego and Tucson, Ariz.

Organizers believe that industry has a key role in events such as ETOP. “Industry’s participation in the development of optics education is critical to that education being relevant and of value to the stakeholders,” said Kathleen Robinson of SPIE.

“A highly skilled workforce is critical for today’s high-tech companies, and meetings like ETOP are one piece of the puzzle,” said OSA’s Kathryn Amatrudo, “helping to ensure tomorrow’s workers are ready to join an evolving technology industry.”

Today, the Long Range Advisory Committee provides leadership and vision for the future of the conference. The committee comprises one representative from each sponsoring society: SPIE, OSA, ICO and IEEE, plus nonvoting staff representatives from both SPIE and OSA; these organizations provide funding for the conference and solicit and review host applications for future ETOP meetings, selecting the local organizer and venue.


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