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3 Questions Interview

Optics education advocate Judy Donnelly might have retired recently, but she won’t let that slow down her efforts to advance science and learning.

Donnelly won the 2012 Esther Hoffman Beller Medal from OSA, which recognizes outstanding contributions to optical science and engineering education, as well as 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 spread the word throughout the photonics industry about trends in education, Donnelly has curated Photonics Spectra’s “Workforce of Tomorrow” column since its inception (see page 65).


What are you working on?

For the next few months, I will be working on figuring out what I should be working on. I recently retired from full-time teaching at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Conn., after 36 years. For the first 20 years, I taught physics, math and electronics, and coordinated several degree and certificate programs. Since 1997, I served as program coordinator and principal instructor for the Laser and Fiber Optic Technology associate degree program.

I will probably continue to teach optics/photonics as an adjunct instructor, but now that I am free from administrative duties, I have the luxury of focusing on those parts of the job I really enjoyed.

I’ve been involved in dozens of outreach projects over the past few years, and now I have time to better plan and enjoy them. This past year, my son, a high school math teacher, invited me to work with his precalculus class on a project funded by an SPIE outreach grant: Illuminating Math with Optics. Throughout the year, I visited his classroom and engaged students in hands-on optics applications of the math topics they were studying. The student feedback was excellent, so we plan to continue and expand the project next year.


Judy Donnelly, Three Rivers Community College.


Of course, 2015 is also the International Year of Light, and along with several colleagues, I have been thinking about how we might engage students in this celebration of all things photonic.

IYL would be a good time to write the second edition of a textbook I authored in 2009 with my colleague Nicholas Massa, Light: Introduction to Optics and Photonics. Besides necessary updates, we plan to survey the users of our self-published book to see what new or different photonics applications we should be addressing.

What are the implications of the work for the industry or society?

In the U.S., fewer than 40 percent of high school students study high school physics (2009, the latest figures reported by the American Institute of Physics). Since optics is typically taught at the very end of a physics course, an even smaller number of students have been exposed to the concepts underlying photonics. It’s difficult to see where tomorrow’s photonics workforce will come from if students have never been exposed to the excitement and fun of optics. And it is even more important that people who aren’t scientists or technical specialists – but who are voters – have a good understanding of how science works.

What’s next for that work?

The main focus of my activities this summer is problem-based learning (PBL) and the PBL Projects of the New England Board of Higher Education. This student-centered method of instruction is gaining notice nationwide, and the NEBHE team is busy creating new PBL Challenges (scenarios) and planning for a weeklong professional development workshop at the end of July. One of our goals is to teach others how to create authentic real-world PBL Challenges to add to the library we’ve begun at www.pblprojects.com.

Beyond the summer, I plan to continue spreading the word of optics and PBL through local outreach to K-12 students and their teachers, and [I plan to continue my] service on education and workforce committees for SPIE, OSA and others.


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