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Innovative Optics Instruction: Prominent Theme of ETOP 2017

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Judy Donnelly, [email protected]

A Google search for “jobs that don’t exist yet” brings up millions of hits. So how do teachers prepare today’s students to learn what is important now and also how to continue to learn and be productive in the future?

Preparing students for a future of critical thinking and problem-solving was at the forefront of many sessions at ETOP 2017, the 14th International Conference on Education and Training in Optics and Photonics. Held at the Zijingang Campus of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, from May 29 to 31, the conference brought together more than 286 participants from 28 countries to discuss and demonstrate new developments in the teaching and learning of optics and photonics. With well over 100 talks including one plenary, eight keynote and eight invited talks, 112 posters, two workshops and a roundtable discussion, it was by far the largest ETOP conference to date.

Children explore light and shadows using LEDs and cardboard masks.

Children explore light and shadows using LEDs and cardboard masks. Courtesy of Mathew Donnelly.

“While optics is ubiquitous, it is often an unexplored science in classrooms around the world,” said Chad Stark, executive director of the OSA Foundation, who attended this year’s conference. “ETOP’s focus on improving and sharing the practice of teaching optics at all levels is critical to ensuring the next generation of engineers, scientists and corporate leaders have a keen understanding of the impact light has on technology, the economy, culture and society.”

ETOP 2017 began with a plenary address by Eric Mazur, OSA President and Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University. Mazur set the tone for the conference with a description of his discovery that students were not necessarily learning what he thought he was teaching. He describes the transition from a traditional lecture classroom to one requiring students’ active participation, which is known as “student-centered learning.” Interactive teaching methods such as Mazur’s “flipped classroom” have been shown through rigorous studies in physics education research to be successful in turning students who simply repeat what is told them into learners who can think for themselves. Innovative student-centered pedagogies improve problem-solving ability and conceptual understanding of material and increase long-term retention of the material.

Professor Xu Liu and Professor Yaocheng Shi,

Professor Xu Liu, Zhejiang University, ETOP conference co-chair (left) and professor Yaocheng Shi, Zhejiang University, lead local conference organizer. Courtesy of Mathew Donnelly.

Several talks and posters echoed this theme with descriptions of classrooms transformed by project- or problem-based learning in addition to flipped classrooms, where traditional class and homework are reversed and classroom time is spent in problem-solving and discussion. Some presenters spoke of innovative curriculum or training strategies to develop students’ entrepreneurial and critical thinking skills. In addition to pedagogical transformation, presentations included talks and posters on multidisciplinary approaches to optics/photonics education, laboratory development and improvement, digital and internet technologies applied to the classroom, and international exchange programs. Bringing optics/photonics education to high school students and collaboration with industry were other recurring themes.

Dumpster optics

The two workshops included an introduction to problem-based learning in the STEM classroom and a new version of “Dumpster Optics: Teaching Optics with Junk.” The latter workshop has been offered to graduate students and optics professionals at previous ETOP meetings and at SPIE’S Optics and Photonics conference to highlight low-cost methods of presenting optics concepts to children. Thanks to the recruiting efforts of Qing Yang, professor of optical engineering at Zhejiang University, this year’s workshop was attended by 40 energetic 8- to 10-year-olds, children of university faculty and students from a nearby primary school. The children were especially amazed to see the changing colors of cellophane tape in polarized light and the way colors of candy changed under different color LED illumination. Yang reported that the children were excited by the activities and several reported continuing to work with them at home.

Using a laptop monitor and polarizing film

Using a laptop monitor and polarizing film, children examine the colors produced by cellophane tape in polarized light. Zhejiang undergraduate Hongyan Mei, an ETOP 2017 workshop assistant and translator, provides guidance. Courtesy of Mathew Donnelly.

Other firsts at the 2017 ETOP Conference included a Best Poster award that was presented to the authors of six papers during the closing session and a round table discussion on accreditation of optics/photonics programs. The poster awardees represented the diversity of the conference, with authors from Russia, China and Spain, and topics covering a variety of teaching methods. The accreditation discussion was a meeting of academics who have gone through the accreditation process at their own institutions. It was a chance to share experiences and discuss common goals and it helped those present gain a greater appreciation of the importance of universally applicable standards to education programs.

ETOP 2017 is the first to be held in China and only the second in Asia; in 2001, the conference was held in Singapore. As with many ETOP conferences, one evening was set aside to showcase local culture. This year, attendees took in the Impression West Lake, a spectacular event of music, light and dance, entirely staged on the water of West Lake in Hangzhou. ETOP attendees were awed by the breathtaking optical effects, making this show a perfect complement to the “family reunion” of the global optics education community.

“It was wonderful that ETOP was in Asia after all this time, especially with the explosion in optics and photonics education in China,” said Eugene Arthurs, executive director of SPIE. “There were some very interesting insights into the cultural differences and how they impact teaching and learning styles. The value of giving students the opportunity for ‘hands-on’ experience seems universal as does relating the science to life experiences. The gathering of so many people interested in how best to educate future generations is always inspirational.”

Judy Donnelly, an optics and photonics educator for 36 years, is the co-author with Nicholas Massa of LIGHT: Introduction to Optics and Photonics, an algebra/trigonometry-based text written for applications-oriented classes at high schools and community colleges. The textbook will be available this fall in the Photonics Media Bookstore at

ETOP: Where Optics and Photonics Educators Meet

A biennial meeting of optics and photonics educators, ETOP — Education and Training in Optics & Photonics Conference — has been held in venues around the globe since 1988. The four permanent sponsors of the meeting — OSA, SPIE, IEEE and ICO — each send one representative to an ETOP Long-Range Planning Committee. Along with nonvoting members from the four societies, the representatives solicit and review host organization applications and discuss and help set vision for the conference’s future. The four sponsor organizations also provide seed money and advice to hosting venues to ensure success.

It was recently announced that the host for ETOP 2019 will be Université Laval in Quebec City.

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2017
ETOPOSASPIEIEEEICOAsia-PacificeducationopticsLEDsDumpster OpticsSTEMpolarizersmultidisciplinary educationproblem-based learningJudy DonnellyEducation Special Sectionteaching opticsflipped classroom

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