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  • PHOTON Projects Connect Industry, Academia and Government

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2013
Fenna Hanes, NEBHE Project Manager

While some companies cite a lack of skilled high-tech workers, others are collaborating with educational institutions to address the need for more graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. The projects of the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) have enlisted industry cooperation for an often unseen and underappreciated component of higher education: community college technician programs. The NEBHE PHOTON Projects are exemplary for connecting industry, academia and government to develop education pathways for students in photonics, particularly at the technician level.

--Judy Donnelly, column curator

In the 1990s, New England industry was growing tremendously but lacked skilled workers prepared to enter this high-tech field. Industry leaders quickly recognized the problem and came together to create lasting networks and collaborations that addressed workforce development needs throughout the region, forming industry associations like the New England Fiberoptic Council (NEFC).

At that time, only two schools – one community college, Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) in Massachusetts, and one four-year college, Wentworth Institute of Technology (WIT) in Boston – offered associate degrees that gave graduates technician-level skills for work in the growing industry. So NEBHE, of Boston, whose mission is to make higher education more accessible to New England residents and to better connect higher education to the region’s economic development, responded by applying for technician education funding from the Advanced Technological Education program of the National Science Foundation (NSF/ATE).

NEBHE received its first ATE grant from NSF, the Fiber Optics Technology Education Project (FOTEP), in 1995, to develop a fiber optics technology curriculum and hold professional development workshops for high school and college instructors in New England.

To meet that goal, I led a team that included professor Nicholas Massa, director of the STCC Laser-Electro Optics Technology (LEOT) program, the first of its kind in New England; WIT professor Elias Awad; and professor James Masi of New England College’s College of Engineering. The project successfully prepared more than 40 high school and college instructors in New England to introduce the study of fiber optics into their classrooms. In addition, NEFC member David Maack, who was working in the fiber optics industry for Aster Corp. at the time, provided guidance and an industry perspective. Maack attended project team meetings, reviewed drafts of proposed curriculum, and attended and presented at the project’s professional development workshops, ensuring that the curriculum met the needs of employers in the industry.

Industry input

As Maack was working with the project team, he realized that in order to help ensure that students in photonics courses found good jobs and continued on to higher education, they would need an additional boost. He suggested to the NEFC board that they could help by providing scholarships, and an annual scholarship was soon created. “The scholarships were a natural outcome of NEFC’s commitment to community outreach,” Maack said. “We wanted to attract students to the industry, and providing a financial incentive makes a difference.”

Fenna Hanes (left), education chair at the New England Fiberoptic Council, presents scholarships at Springfield Technical Community College in 2013 to students Jonathan Forgue (second from left) and Jennifer Gallagher (right) with STCC professor Nicholas Massa (second from right).

The NEFC scholarship was designed to support college students preparing to enter the workforce at a technician level and provided financial assistance for the second year of college, enabling students to complete their associate degrees. To be eligible, students had to be enrolled in a degree program that contained at least one fiber optics course. Since its inception in the 1997-1998 academic year, more than 40 scholarships of $1000 have been awarded.

Over time, WIT dropped its associate degree program, but the only other New England fiber optics program in operation at the time, the LEOT program at STCC, continues to be a leader in preparing technicians for the industry. STCC students are sought-after graduates, employed from coast to coast in laboratories such as Lawrence Livermore in California and MIT’s Lincoln in Massachusetts.

Government grants

As FOTEP was approaching completion in 1998, the need for skilled photonics technicians continued to grow along with this burgeoning industry. As a result of FOTEP’s success, NSF/ATE awarded three more curriculum and professional development grants in photonics education to NEBHE: PHOTON, PHOTON2 and PHOTON Problem Based Learning (PBL). These three projects, along with FOTEP, are now known as the PHOTON projects. Over their duration, NEBHE prepared approximately 100 more STEM instructors as well as counselors to introduce optics and photonics into existing curricula or to develop new courses, reaching several thousand secondary and postsecondary students across New England and the US.

FOTEP participant professor David Miller of Great Bay Community College (GBCC) in New Hampshire saw an opportunity to address skilled workforce needs in his service delivery area. Miller continued to participate in NEBHE’s PHOTON projects until his death last March.

GBCC’s program focuses on the telecommunications industry and embedded the fiber optics courses into its Information Systems Technology program.

To help his students gain industry-recognized certification, Miller reached out to another important collaborator, Jim Hayes, founder of the Fiber Optics Association (FOA), who had already developed industry certification programs. The FOA worked with Miller to offer the FOA certification exam at GBCC. The certification shows that graduates are able to design, install and operate fiber optics telecommunications networks that meet the workforce needs of the industry. GBCC has certified hundreds of fiber optics technicians. “Our certification shows that students know how the technology is applied in the real world,” Hayes said.

FOTEP participant professor Judith Donnelly, who was teaching physics at Three Rivers Community College (TRCC), was aware that Connecticut was a leader in the photonics industry; she saw the potential for introducing a new optics/photonics two-year associate degree program and developed the Laser and Fiber Optic Technology (LFOT) associate degree. The state approved the program in 1997. Working with the FOTEP and PHOTON projects’ principal investigators and an industry advisory committee, the program has continuously evolved to keep pace with industry needs: It originally focused mainly on fiber optics communications, but over time added courses and a certificate program in lasers and laser applications in response to their increasing importance to the industry. LFOT graduates are employed as technicians in the optics/photonics industry throughout the US.

As these new degree programs came online, NEFC decided to expand the scholarship offering to three per year, including the new degree programs at GBCC and TRCC as well as the LEOT program at STCC.

Lasting impact

New England optics and photonics companies such as IPG Photonics, Nufern, Zygo, Enterasys, Noyes Fiber Systems, Trumpf and more have hired – and continue to hire – graduates of the programs. In addition, some of these graduates have gone on to higher education to complete bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

“I’d really like to keep in touch with the New England Fiberoptic Council; they provided me with a scholarship when I had a really hard time getting student loans,” said one NEFC scholarship graduate from GBCC. “I do use fiber in my current work at Vistaprint, and I am still going to school at Southern New Hampshire University.”

“I am especially thankful for the NEFC scholarship that I was awarded in ’09,” said a TRCC graduate who now works for Zygo Corp. “That money allowed me some breathing room with my financial obligations for school.”

Another graduate of the STCC program who continued her education at Central Connecticut State University is currently working at Nufern as an R&D optical technician. Aspiring to move into management, she is planning to start an MBA program in 2014.

Ultimately, the curriculum developed during the PHOTON projects became a textbook titled Light: Introduction to Optics and Photonics, written by Donnelly and Massa. Inspired by the NEFC scholarship model, Donnelly and Massa are donating royalties from the sale of the textbook to fund another scholarship: the Donnelly-Massa Light Scholarship, which is given annually to both a student at TRCC and one at STCC, the authors’ home institutions. Donnelly, Massa and I have each been recognized with SPIE’s Educator of the Year Award, and Donnelly has also received The Optical Society’s Esther Hoffman Beller Medal for excellence in education.

“As a returning Army veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq,” said one STCC student recipient, “the NEFC scholarship will help a great deal with relieving some of the pressure of being a husband and father of two (soon to be three) as well as a full-time student and still serving in the Army [Reserve].”

Clearly, the collaboration among industry, government and academia has been successful in meeting the demand for a skilled photonics workforce.

“We rely on the graduates from both TRCC and STCC’s photonics programs to help staff our organization,” said Coral Barry, human resources director at IPG Photonics in Oxford, Mass. “Finding well-prepared graduates who not only have technical skills, but can also solve problems and work in teams, is critical to IPG’s continued growth.”

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