Researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology are using a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study workforce training in the photonics and optics fields. "If we can find common trends, then arguably we could prepare students better for these careers without giving up the core curriculum," said Ben Zwickl, assistant professor in RIT's School of Physics and Astronomy. The three-year Photonics and Optics Workforce Education Research project will use more than 100 on-site, individual interviews with technicians, engineers, researchers, direct supervisors and human resources personnel to gain insight into the industry. The project will identify different math, physics and communication skills used on the job at the more than 60 small- to mid-sized photonics companies in Rochester. The researchers said the national discussion of workforce development generalizes jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly referred to as STEM. "A lot of times STEM jobs get lumped together," Zwickl said. "The reality is that there is a huge diversity among STEM jobs." Rochester is the birthplace of the Optical Society and the new home AIM Photonics, a national manufacturing institute. The photonics hub is expected to create thousands of jobs in the region. Some 96 percent of physics majors who graduate with a bachelor's degree don't go into academia, said Anne Leak, a postdoctoral researcher on the project. "How we prepare those students needs to align with the skills they will need in the workforce, and we don't have as much of an idea of what that is outside of academia," Leak said. Project leaders Zwickl and Kelly Norris Martin, assistant professor in the School of Communication at RIT, are members of RIT's Center for Advancing Science/Mathematics Teaching and Evaluation, and share an interest in discipline-based education research. While Zwickl is focusing on how employees use math and physics skills on the job, Martin is exploring how communication is used in academia and in the workplace. This study investigates the type of communication — such as talking to colleagues, writing reports and making presentations — as well as the extent of that particular type of communication. "I am interested in how people perceive communication and how they value it," Martin said. "I'm also interested if they think it's a trainable skill. Maybe it's easy to train someone on a certain machine, but sometimes it can be difficult to get someone to ask questions and communicate their findings. Is that skill something a company will give up on or will they provide extra training? We are asking employees to reflect on their transition from school to work and to describe their learning curve. We're getting a snapshot of what happens when students take the next step." Additional interviews with graduate students and faculty advisors at local universities will provide skill comparisons between academic and industrial domains. The series of hour-long interviews make up the first phase of the project. The researchers hope in the second phase to shadow employees on the job. The workforce study will also investigate perceptions about a skills gap in STEM workers in the local photonics sector. The RIT team is collaborating with the workforce development efforts of AIM Photonics, including University of California Santa Barbara's Center for Science and Engineering Partnerships, to design surveys on future workforce needs. These surveys will be sent to universities and companies across the country to determine what skills will be necessary to design and manufacture integrated photonics.