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An ‘Epic’ Plan: Student Outreach Program Takes the Long View

Photonics Spectra
Apr 2013
Karen A. Newman, Group Publisher, karen.newman@photonics.com

As a student, I learned a lot of science facts that seemed to have no connection to what I might do in the future. The EPIC Adopt a Classroom project is notable for industry support of education, a growing necessity as education budgets shrink. But even more important is that it says to students, “You are important to us because you are the future of our industry. What you learn today will help us be successful in the future.”

In most physics textbooks, the study of light doesn’t begin until after 20 or more chapters of Newtonian mechanics, thermodynamics, and electricity and magnetism. Teachers often must rush through the light chapter, if they have time to cover it at all. The words “optics” and “photonics” seldom appear. Adopt a Classroom will give students the opportunity to study optics and photonics with some pretty cool lasers and will also open the eyes of students across Europe to the excitement of our often hidden discipline.

– Judy Donnelly, column editor


Carlos Lee, director general of EPIC, the European Photonics Industry Consortium, knows his members are concerned over the lack of engineers to fill future job openings. So, when an opportunity presented itself for his organization to help get young students excited about photonic technologies – and perhaps fill the engineer pipeline for tomorrow – he wasted no time in putting the idea into action.

On Jan. 9, Lee saw a LinkedIn post by Laser Classroom founder Colette DeHarpporte about her “Light, Lasers and Optics” outreach kit. He suggested that perhaps he could feature the kit on the EPIC website. But the conversation didn’t end there. Two months later, Lee sent out a press release announcing EPIC’s Adopt a Classroom Kit as well as the organization’s intention to measure the project’s short- and long-term impact, perhaps the plan’s most important component.

It’s no mistake that she and Lee saw “eye to eye” on a solution for reaching students early with an exciting, accessible teaching tool, DeHarpporte said. “We both realized there was an opportunity to leverage the interest of industry in education,” she added. In DeHarpporte, Lee found a program partner who shared his ultimate objective.

The plan

Creating and maintaining a pool of future engineers requires an ongoing effort, and for EPIC that means reaching out to schoolchildren from about the age of 12 to 15 in the hopes of influencing their career directions. Lee wants to get out there and make some noise, to get their attention. They must understand, he said, that the technologies they use every day are created, designed and made by people, and one day they could be those people. He wants to get the kits out to students by the hundreds.

“There is only one objective,” he said, “and that is to excite children to take on a STEM career direction so that companies in Europe have access to the talent they need to remain competitive.”

The path to success, according to Lee, starts with universities across Europe – which have their own pipelines to keep filled with students, of course – identifying interested teachers who want to bring the study of lasers into their classrooms. Those universities, along with national research organizations and photonics clusters, will help to translate kit materials into various languages. Companies will sponsor the kits, and teachers will order them online from Laser Classroom.

Teachers who wish to use the kit will be asked to report annually on the number of children participating in kit projects and to send in a photo and testimonial about the experience. Kit sponsors and schools using them will be listed on the EPIC website, and Lee plans long-term tracking of those students and their school and career choices.

“Everybody can play a role in this project,” Lee said.

He believes his members have been waiting for an idea that would allow them to do something about the lack of engineers. He may not be able to ask CEOs to go out and look for classrooms to sponsor, but he can ask them to spend €195 for a kit that will go to an interested instructor: “They will very quickly put the money on the table because they want to help, but [also because] they want to find an easy and effective solution.”

Measuring success

Lee is no stranger to industry association management. His goal is to make sure EPIC member companies are prepared to meet the challenges of the future and remain competitive. He wants his members to know that their association is working to address this issue.

He believes the Adopt a Classroom Kit may have some distinct advantages over others being implemented around Europe: It is not simply a national program, spreading only as far as a country’s borders. Rather it is Europewide, an expansiveness that Lee believes will give it enough weight to create momentum. Also, because the program is run by an international industry association, it can reach a far wider audience and can be tracked over many years.

With teachers willing to participate, student engagement can be measured through a series of surveys that ask the same questions to the same people every four years or so as they transition from one level of education to another and then into the labor force. “The point is to have an ongoing dialogue over several years,” Lee said. He suggested that the lack of both a long-term perspective and a sustainability plan in previous efforts has prevented this type of tracking until now.

“The ultimate measurement is, have we influenced – and how much – the career direction of those children?” Lee said. “Long term, what we want to have is more children going in the direction of studying STEM.”

Each Adopt a Classroom kit contains:

1 red Laser Blox, 635 nm, <1 mW
1 green Laser Blox, 532 nm, <1 mW
1 Light Blox set (red, green, blue)
1 white LED
1 set of 3 frosted glass lenses
10 protractors
10 diffraction gratings, 500 lines/mm
3 mirrors
3 mirror supports
1 bag of gummy bears, red and green
1 syringe

Nine exercises in the kit

1. Monochromatic light
2. Collimated light
3. Coherent light
4. Absorption and gummy bears
5. Laser microscope
6. Re?ection and refraction
7. Color separation and mixing
8. Measure the wavelength of a laser
9. Measure the width of a human hair with a laser


GLOSSARY
light
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
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