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10 Tips for Successful O&P Outreach

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It’s a common complaint from companies, universities, and colleges: There aren’t enough students studying optics and photonics (O&P). It’s not for a lack of interest, though. Most people have never heard of the field. And if they have, they often think it’s narrow and limited, with few opportunities for employment. The most common response I’ve heard from people about what they think O&P involves: “It must have something to do with eyeglasses.” When they learn it is much more — spanning optical communication, national defense, health care, and entertainment — they are truly surprised. In 2016, the market for photonics-enabled products employed more than 4 million people1.

How do we increase awareness of O&P? Let’s acknowledge that a lecture packed with graphs, formulae, and data won’t encourage young people to consider a career in the field, any more than an engineering report about the structural integrity of a roller coaster is going to encourage a child to take a ride.

A well-crafted activity, demonstration, or lecture presented by an effective and clear communicator can inspire a student to pursue O&P.

All of us working in the field — whether scientist, engineer, technician, staff member, or student — can contribute to raising awareness. It won’t happen without us. I’ve compiled the following 10 tips to help prepare a successful outreach event (next page).

Once you’ve inspired students to pursue careers in O&P, they need to know where to turn for information. In the U.S., six universities have ABET-accredited O&P engineering programs, and 10 colleges offer technical degrees. Find them at www.opticseducation.org. Many others offer a degree track through physics or electrical engineering departments.

It’s up to each of us to promote O&P. Just think that at the start of the 20th century, few knew about electrical engineering, but today hardly anyone can say they haven’t heard of it. O&P is at a similar point in history and our charge is to raise awareness so the 21st century will be known as “the century of optics and photonics.” It will happen with outreach, engagement, and excitement.

Meet the author

Mike McKee is associate director of academic programs at CREOL, The College of Optics and Photonics at the University of Central Florida. He conducts workshops for industry professionals on techniques for outreach and is a former high school physics teacher.

Reference

1. SPIE (2019). Optics & Photonics Industry Report, p. 4, Rep. no. 2.1. Bellingham, Wash., http://spie.org/industry-resources/information/market-intelligence.

10 tips to help prepare a successful outreach event


1. Know your audience. A middle school science class is very different from a group of parents at an information session. Before preparing a lecture or activity, know the age range and general background of your audience. A group of students will appreciate a hands-on activity, such as viewing various colored light bulbs through diffraction glasses. Parents will want to know about the field and its job prospects.

2. Speak simply. Consider how you will speak, using terminology that your audience can understand. Science, politics, education, and medicine all have field-specific terms that newcomers may find difficult to follow in conversation. The same is true of O&P. Think of the words you use on a daily basis that may be unknown to those outside the field (e.g., phase shift and waveguide) and find substitutes.

If you are discussing research, be ready to answer the question, “What can you do with your research?” Have a simple-to-understand answer.

3. Have an elevator pitch at the ready. How often are you asked, “What do you do?” Have a quick one- to two-sentence answer ready that steers clear of terminology. Make it relatable and interesting.

4. Prepare engaging activities. Allow students to engage in activities, such as producing images through lenses, using a Slinky to create transverse waves, or using a laser transmitter and receiver to demonstrate free-space optical communication. Simple visuals can inspire more interest than data-packed lectures.

And, when you need to do a presentation, use more pictures and video than words. O&P is a visual field, so take advantage of it!

5. Avoid the stereotype. Some children may think of scientists and engineers as old white men in lab coats. When conducting an outreach activity, offer diverse representations of gender, ethnicity, and age.

6. Be explicit. When offering examples of jobs that exist in O&P (scientist, engineer, technician), also provide examples of what people do in these jobs. Many do not know what engineers do, or how an engineer’s work differs from a scientist’s.

7. Remember, the wheel has already been invented (Part 1). Science fairs, school science nights, and public events already exist, so tap into them to promote O&P. Make sure you have a list ready of nearby colleges and universities that offer degrees in the field. Many people will ask!

8. Remember the wheel (Part 2). No need to create new demonstrations, activities, or PowerPoints. Great resources can be found at photonics.creol.ucf.edu, www.spie.org, and www.osa.org.

9. Put your enthusiastic people forward. Everyone has different strengths and styles. Some staff are great at capturing the attention of children, while others are charismatic lecturers and advocates. When choosing who to send to events, pick people who have enthusiasm for the topic. A caution, though: Stellar presentation skills often don’t come naturally. Outreach and communication skills can be improved through professional development. Meet with your marketing or educational staff to learn about effective presentation and communication techniques.

10. Walk into a crowded room and yell ‘Photonics!’ It’s a word many have never heard, and just using it can inspire curiosity. Be ready to explain what the word means. Don’t have a ready definition? You could use: “Photonics is the technology of generating and using light.” Then follow with examples.

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2019
outreachO&Poptics and photonicsEducation Special Section

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