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ALOP: Bringing Optics and Photonics to the Developing World

Photonics Spectra
Jun 2015
Vasudevan (Vengu) Lakshminarayanan vengu@uwaterloo.ca, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Teaching introductory O&P courses is very challenging. Teachers must understand math and physics well enough to provide students the requisite understanding of both. They also have to choose the best teaching techniques from options including the traditional lecture format, interactive lecture demonstrations, and active learning methodologies such as inquiry and problem- or project-based learning.

– Judy Donnelly, column editor

SPIE, OSA and IEEE Photonics student chapters and working professionals work with children every year through a number of creative programs to ensure that all students can experience optics and photonics (O&P) education. The Active Learning in Optics and Photonics (ALOP) project trains teachers in developing nations to introduce O&P concepts and applications to their own students.

An ALOP workshop in Tunisia facilitated discussions about optics and other activities.


An ALOP workshop in Tunisia facilitated discussions about optics and other activities.

At the World Conference on Physics and Sustainable Development, held during the International Year of Physics in 2005, the education subcommittee developed guidelines for introductory physics workshops, including the following:

• Ensure that workshops are designed by an international team with broad experience in teaching environments, cultural differences and the educational needs of people from many nations;

• Replace lectures with sequenced activities based on direct engagement with physical phenomena and on solving problems informed by physics education research;

 • Use appropriate pedagogical techniques and tools that are low cost, especially in developing countries. 

Teachers learn about diffraction with a laser pointer and grating in Chiang Mai, Thailand.


Teachers learn about diffraction with a laser pointer and grating in Chiang Mai, Thailand.


With the guidelines in mind, Dr. Minella Alarcon, at that time a program specialist with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), proposed the ALOP project to train secondary schoolteachers in developing nations. O&P became the focus because they are relevant and adaptable to research and educational conditions in many developing countries. The ALOP project was established in November 2003 during a meeting at the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. Individual instructional modules of the workshop were later discussed during a second meeting in the Philippines. 

Teachers in Chiang Mai, Thailand, study the refraction of light in water.


Teachers in Chiang Mai, Thailand, study the refraction of light in water.


 Research shows that lack of equipment and educator familiarity with O&P means it is not given primary importance in physics courses. ALOP workshops offer postsecondary physics teachers in developing countries the opportunity to improve their own conceptual understanding of O&P, as well as to learn active strategies for teaching that research has shown to be effective. The workshops foster the use of laboratory work and hands-on activities that can then be used in the teachers’ own classrooms. Activities involve simple, inexpensive materials that, whenever possible, can be fabricated or sourced locally. For example, instead of optics benches, clay and cardboard screens are used. Light sources include flashlights or simple laser pointers costing less than a dollar each, and diffraction gratings are cut from used CDs, which can also be used to make spectroscopes. 

ALOP activities use simple materials such as clay lens holders.


ALOP activities use simple materials such as clay lens holders.


In addition to developing lessons and activities, the ALOP team developed an accompanying training manual that includes an assessment tool called LOCE (Light and Optics Conceptual Evaluation), used to measure students’ learning of optics concepts. To date, the manual has been translated into French, Arabic and Spanish. 

ALOP’s intensive weeklong workshop for teachers illustrates the pedagogy of active learning through carefully crafted learning sequences that integrate conceptual questions and hands-on activities. All workshops are locally organized, and the optimal number of participants per workshop is about 30 to 35. The LOCE test is administered to the participants before the start of the workshop and again on the last day to see whether the conceptual understanding has improved – and whether the improvement has been demonstrated. 

More in-depth topics requiring additional equipment or time are presented as interactive lecture demonstrations. Some ALOP curricular materials were designed to be introduced in either an interactive lecture or a hands-on format. The ALOP Training Manual contains six modules, each of which has embedded applications as sidebars, designed to intrigue students and show that basic physics has vital practical applications. The applications help students to better understand their everyday world and to become aware of career opportunities. This strong foundation enables workshop participants to teach complex concepts to their students. Another key to success is that all of the equipment is very inexpensive and easily sourced. 

ALOP Modules

The first prototype workshop was held in Ghana in late 2005, and the first full workshop was organized in Tunisia in the spring of 2005. To date, 22 workshops have been held in South America, Asia, Africa and central Asia (including countries of the former Soviet Union). The most recent workshop was held in March of 2015 in Indonesia.

Recognizing that the original team of founding professors cannot meet future demand for workshops, an effort has been made to train local facilitators who can then organize their own teacher professional development workshops. Such “train the trainer” workshops are conducted by members of the original founding team, and the effort has been very successful, with many follow-up workshops held in various countries. For example, in Morocco alone, over 1000 teachers have participated in ALOP workshops. 

The ALOP program has been generously supported by SPIE, ICTP, UNESCO, the U.S. National Academies, OSA and the International Commission for Optics, as well as local universities and ministries of various countries. Additional information (including the manual, teachers’ guides and the LOCE test) on the ALOP program can be found at the UNESCO website: www.unesco.org.



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