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Educational Programs Drive the Future

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How will the next generation of optics and photonics workers be educated? The International Year of Light, National Photonics Initiative and Next Generation Science Standards are changing the way students are learning both in the classroom and outside of it.


According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) workforce is critical to innovation and competitiveness. STEM literacy is vital also to ordinary citizens making sense of a complex world. Several noteworthy developments have been made in STEM education at all levels, and many more are in the pipeline.

Next Generation Science Standards

In the U.S., K-12 education news has been dominated by new national standards, Common Core (math and English language arts) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). NGSS is “for today’s students and tomorrow’s workforce,” according to Nancy Magnani, science specialist at Eastconn, a regional educational service center in Hampton, Conn. After a period of public comment, the standards were released for adoption in 2013. Critical thinking and communication skills that students need for post-secondary school success were considered vital, as were the practices that encompass habits and skills used by scientists and engineers. NGSS also introduces “cross-cutting concepts” such as energy and matter that apply to many scientific domains. These provide a way to connect knowledge from different science fields into a scientifically based view of the world.

Fourth graders at Global Village Academy in Fort Collins, Colo.
Fourth graders at Global Village Academy in Fort Collins, Colo., test diffraction glasses. Photo coutresy of Marcelo Ramalho-Ortiago.

Under NGSS, content is in some cases delivered at different grade levels than with current state standards. For example, in NGSS, light and vision are introduced in first grade and appear again in fourth grade and middle school, each with slightly different and more in-depth study. In addition, engineering skills are introduced across the entire K-12 curriculum.

Along with the release of new standards, there has been a great deal of support to help states train teachers to successfully teach the new concepts. These include online resources, state-provided professional learning opportunities and materials developed by the National Science Teachers Association. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted NGSS as of November 2015.

Two-year colleges, technician training

At the two-year college level, employer demand for technicians in optics and photonics (O&P) is at an all-time high, yet the number of colleges with technician programs hovers at around 30. OP-TEC, the NSF National Center for Optics and Photonics Education, assists colleges to create photonics courses and programs by helping to identify local employers, design curriculum, produce industry-relevant teaching materials, develop safe teaching labs, acquire lab equipment and train instructors. According to OP-TEC PI and executive director Dan Hull, 14 colleges plan to start photonics technician education within the next year, including five from the Northeast region, where the technician shortage is greatest.

High School students play with light refraction at the first Café Scientifique meeting in Rio Rancho, N.M
High School students play with light refraction at the first Café Scientifique meeting in Rio Rancho, N.M., presented by Imelda Atencio, Ph.D., an optical engineer at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. Photo courtesy of Teresa Madrid.

Precision Optics Technology (POT) — fabricating, testing and integrating precision optics — is not currently widespread at U.S. colleges, resulting in a shortage of trained workers. OP-TEC has recently completed the development and testing of curriculum for two POT courses: Quality Assurance of Precision Optics and Metrology of Optical Systems.

OP-TEC has also assisted colleges with strong photonics programs to become NSF regional photonics centers, greatly increasing NSF support for O&P technician education. LASER-TEC, the Southeast Regional Center for Laser and Fiber Optics Education, based at Indian River State College in Florida, specializes in fiber optics communication and spectroscopy. The Midwest Photonics Education Center (MPEC), located at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa, specializes in laser manufacturing and materials processing. Colleges on the West Coast and in the Northeast are also working to develop new regional photonics centers.

Four-year programs: accreditation

The establishment of specific program criteria and accreditation of programs in O&P engineering by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is a major development in O&P education at the bachelor’s degree level. Kathleen Robinson of SPIE explained that “ABET is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that accredits college and university programs in the disciplines of applied science, computing, engineering and engineering technology.” SPIE, an ABET member, worked with IEEE and members of academia and industry to draft distinct O&P program criteria, which was approved for the 2014-2015 accreditation cycle.

A student intern at Aperture Optical Sciences in Connecticut works with a white light profilometer.
A student intern at Aperture Optical Sciences in Connecticut works with a white light profilometer. Photo courtesy of Flemming Tinker.

Accreditation verifies that the student’s education meets the global standard for technical education, enhances employment opportunities and supports entry into a technical profession through licensure, registration and certification — all of this typically requires graduation from an ABET-accredited program. For programs and institutions, the accreditation process yields data and insights that can be useful in developing curricula in response to the needs of industry, and assures satisfactory preparation of students to apply what they have learned. For industry and government, ABET accreditation ensures that graduates are prepared to enter their profession and contribute to the community. Accreditation also provides opportunities for industry to guide the educational process to reflect current and future needs.

The new classroom

Professor Nicholas Massa, of Springfield Technical Community College in Massachusetts, argues that traditional lectures and “cookbook” laboratories do not create technicians and engineers able to step into a job with the necessary skills. Massa said students need to be explicitly taught the skill of structured problem-solving; that is, “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.”

Senior students in Massa’s Laser Electro-Optics Technology program spend the fall semester solving a series of PBL challenges — open-ended problems developed with industry through NSF grants to the New England Board of Higher Education. The multimedia challenges simultaneously teach content and problem-solving, as well as teamwork and communication skills. The following semester, students participate in on-site internships as part of their senior capstone projects. Students work on real engineering projects that provide the opportunity to be part of an engineering team, leading to better-prepared graduates and employees.

A student intern at RSL Fiber Systems in East Hartford, Conn., works with a laser-based illumination system for fiber optic lighting.
A student intern at RSL Fiber Systems in East Hartford, Conn., works with a laser-based illumination system for fiber optic lighting. Photo courtesy of Judy Donnelly.

Online learning is becoming the choice of working students for whom a trip to campus is impractical. Because employers cannot find enough photonics-trained technicians, photonics tasks are assigned to workers with electronics or other backgrounds. To help get these workers up to speed, OP-TEC developed hybrid, online instruction in Fundamentals of Light and Lasers. Those who complete the online instruction have the opportunity to take part in a 3-day hands-on learning experience at a nearby college with photonics labs.

While a handful of colleges and universities offer one or more online O&P courses, the University of California, Irvine, offers online Optical Engineering and Optical Design certificate programs. The two to four courses taught each quarter attract students from around the globe. Most courses include virtual online office hours, in addition to recorded lectures and supplemental materials. Several University of Arizona degree programs are available entirely online or with limited residency requirements, as well.

Perhaps the largest increase in O&P education has been in the informal arena — after-school programs, at museums, libraries, science cafes and more. An army of volunteers from OSA and SPIE student chapters performs much of this outreach, supported by grant funding from both societies.

Kaleidoscopes and soap bubbles

Student chapters engage in outreach in a variety of settings, including bringing students to the lab, hosting science days, visiting classrooms and in after-school programs. June Thompson of SPIE explained that the scope of activities varies widely, from the chapter in Bogota, Colombia, that created kaleidoscopes and discussed the optics of soap bubbles and sunsets with children, to the chapter in South Africa that has introduced optics to 7,900 students and the general public at a variety of outreach events.

SPIE staff has also participated in science teacher conferences, sponsoring free workshops and giving away more than 1,000 optics kits to teachers in 2015. At the INTEL Science Fair (Pittsburgh) and the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching (Texas) they reached thousands of participants with posters and science outreach kits.

For the last four years, SPIE has partnered with Prismatic Magic, a professional laser program vendor that delivers over 1,000 educational laser shows each year at schools and science centers throughout the U.S. SPIE sponsors more than 20 schools that could not otherwise afford to offer this laser program. In 2016, SPIE is partnering with Prismatic Magic and the organizers of the USA Science and Engineering Fair in Washington, D.C., to present more than 40 laser shows during the event, allowing attendees the opportunity to learn about lasers and light.

Scientists and engineers are also reaching out to the public to explain their work. Although the use of smartphones and social media are widespread among teenagers, many have a limited understanding of the nature of science and technology innovations and the implications for a rapidly changing world.

A new trend in education is the Teen Science Café, a free choice learning experience that brings teens and STEM professionals together in an informal setting to explore cutting edge discoveries and their impacts. A typical café program starts with a short 20-minute talk, followed by wide-ranging conversation exploring the given topic and hands-on learning. Teens who participate have learned how to create a hologram, explore design of laser-guided systems, match human skeletons to victim lists, employ models of past trends to predict future events, and build robots, among other projects. Unique to teen science café programs is that they are led by teens, for teens. This ensures the programming is relevant and stimulates curiosity.

Teachers received educational tools for STEM learning in their classrooms at CAST 2015
Teachers received educational tools for STEM learning in their classrooms at CAST 2015, the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching, under the Science Teachers Association of Texas. Photo courtesy of June Thompson.

According to Michelle Hall, president of Science Education Solutions in New Mexico, rich conversation around the given topic and hands-on activity are key to successful science cafés. Engaging participants provides different perspectives and new dimensions.

Teen Science Cafés have been shown to significantly change teens’ views of the importance of science in everyday life. The programs have increased teens’ ability and confidence to use facts to support scientific points of view and to consider multiple sides of an issue before making a decision. The café events have also positively influenced teens’ interest in science, science-related careers and scientific research. Students learn the social implications of science research, as well.

The Teen Science Café network, and the many other educational programs like it around the world, are proving invaluable as they promote exploration, creativity and life-long learning to the next generation of STEM engineers.

More on this subject at

Photonics Education: Where is Everybody?
Virtually everyone who receives an associate’s degree in laser and optical technology is assured a job with enviable starting pay. That’s in part because photonics technicians are in such short supply: By one estimate, only three in eight open positions is filled each year. Now companies and colleges are pushing hard to boost recruitment and find other ways to bridge the gap.

RIT to Study Photonics, Optics Workforce Training
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, N.Y.

European Groups Launch Photonics4All Program
A two-year program funded by the European Commission aims to raise awareness of the importance of photonics and make the field accessible to the general public, business and industry.

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2016
The science of measurement, particularly of lengths and angles.
FeaturesmetrologyeducationEDUJudy DonnellyAmericasEuropeABET accreditationSPIEIEEENicholas Massaop-tecSTEMNGSSKathleen RobinsonMichelle HallScience Education Solutionswork in photonics

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