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Lasers and Fake Corneas Connect Teens, STEM and Photonics

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Learning middle school science from a textbook can be boring; at least it was for me! But it would have been less so if I could have constructed solar ovens, performed “simulated laser surgery” or seen photonic technologies at work in the real world. A special science program at North Carolina State University has found the secret to exciting kids and their teachers about STEM careers. – JD

Middle and high school students have so many distractions these days, so STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects have to work hard to attract and hold their interest. But actually shaving a gelatin eye in a simulated lasik vision-correction surgery sounds like a great way to get a teenager’s attention. And a special science program offers students a chance to do just that.

For more than 20 years, the Imhotep Academy at North Carolina State University (NCSU) has successfully used industry-academic collaboration in programs designed to introduce science and mathematics to underrepresented minority students (African-Americans, Latinos and females) and their teachers. The academy’s goal is to immerse students in grades 6 through 12 in hands-on STEM investigations, projects and career learning experiences to develop their awareness of STEM careers as well as programs at NCSU.

The program has evolved to incorporate engineering competencies to introduce students to the unifying connection of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. From 2005 to 2011, Imhotep Academy offered a special series of science programs on optics and photonics to middle and high school students, parents and teachers from North Carolina, New Hampshire, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia.

In these programs, participants learned about the physics and applications of light and solid-state technology, and students and teachers engaged in activities such as fabricating an LCD pixel, building a laser beam communicator, attending virtual seminars and conducting independent research. They toured optics- and photonics-based research laboratories and discovered STEM careers through externship experiences in the Research Triangle Park with the support of companies such as Kyma Technologies, Verizon Business, Semiconductor Research Corp., Bioptigen, Cisco Systems and IBM.

Eighty percent of the 56 Photonics Leaders II graduates who attended the program between 2009 and 2011 are currently pursuing a college or four-year university degree in a STEM field. The student leaders completed more than 340 hours of in-depth investigations covering optics and photonics topics; completed two independent research projects; competed in regional, state and national science competitions; and fulfilled 48 hours of externship experiences in STEM-based companies and laboratories at the Research Triangle Park C and North Carolina State University.

This group of leaders was the only cohort in North Carolina discovering the wonder of light and its interdisciplinary applications, and using the knowledge they had gained to perform independent research and engineering design projects. These projects included designing a solar-powered golf cart; building and erecting radio telescopes for collection of solar flare data; and investigating dark matter, photonic properties of novel dyes and the effects of algae on light intensities for formal presentations to their peers, parents and university and STEM leaders in Research Triangle Park.

In 2012 and 2013, the photonics program was scaled to Imhotep Academy to build middle school students’ awareness of applications in biophotonics, energy and fiber optics. In this science enrichment program, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students from underserved populations learned about all types of electromagnetic radiation, performed a simulated laser eye surgery, used sensor-based technology to monitor the body’s vital signs, and discovered with a microarray activity how geneticists study gene expression. They explored the nature of energy; constructed solar ovens; and investigated biofuels, wind power, biomass and photovoltaic cells in problem-based learning scenarios.

They even dissected a cow’s eye to study its parts and learn how it works. The middle school students learned that millions of Americans pay to get their eyes poked, prodded, suctioned and zapped by a laser to correct vision impairments. They discovered that the lasik procedure includes removing layers of the cornea with a laser to change the focal point of photons (light particles) passing through the eye. Upon viewing the Science Friday lasik eye surgery video, students were given an eye model made of a convex lens and a clear gelatin mold with an ill-focused image projected through a lens.

As a team, students had to shave layers of the cornea away from the eye until a focused image was projected through the lens. This experience gave them an awareness of what ophthalmologists do and of how a leading surgical procedure has evolved to correct vision problems.

The goal is to inspire and prepare students for the future.

To understand real-world and future-forward applications of these topics, the students toured Cisco Systems, Duke Energy Envision Center, SAS Institute and Solar Farm, and Tekelec. They talked to STEM professionals, learned about the history of each company, used advanced technology equipment, discovered how to prepare for a STEM career at these companies, and learned what skills are needed to compete in the global workforce.

All year-round programs are held at The Science House on NC State’s Centennial Campus, a research park and technology campus. The photonics programs offered to middle and high school students are the result of a collaboration of scientists, engineers and STEM professionals; different industries; a government agency; and funding contributions. Funded originally by the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences and nominal fees paid by parents, the program is supported today by the College of Sciences, The Science House, Friends of Imhotep Academy, IBM, John Deere Inc. and fees paid by participants.

Over the years, funding has come from a variety of sources, including the National Science Foundation, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, IBM and John Deere Turf Care. Future program plans include reinstating the high school photonics program for ninth-grade students, creating a program for elementary students for statewide dissemination, and providing fellowships for teachers in these programs to learn the innovative curriculum for classroom implementation.

Industry representatives are invited to partner with The Science House-Imhotep Academy program to develop students’ awareness of optics and photonics, careers and the skills needed to thrive in a global society by serving as a consultant or content expert on the program advisory board, hosting a high school student or teacher as a research mentor for a summer internship, offering a one-day field trip for younger students and teachers, participating in a career symposium as an exhibitor, or speaking to parents and students as a guest speaker or panelist.

Industry contributions include materials, supplies, company souvenirs, and short informative videos or webinars about your company or field of work. Of course, donations to Friends of Imhotep to support the photonics program’s future initiatives are always welcome.

Pamela Gilchrist, Imhotep Director,
and column curator Judy Donnelly,
Three Rivers Community College

Imhotep Academy by the numbers

• 20+ years of industry-academic collaboration to bring science and math to underrepresented minority students.

• Offered special science programs on optics and photonics to 4000 middle and high school students, 600 parents and 70 teachers from 2005 to 2011.

• These participants came from 27 counties of North Carolina and school districts in four other states: New Hampshire, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia.

• 80 percent of the 56 Photonics Leaders II graduates (2009-2011) are currently pursuing a college or four-year university degree in a STEM field.

• 38 partnering scientists, engineers and STEM professionals; 12 industries; one government agency; and funding from the National Science Foundation, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, IBM, John Deere Turf Care and other foundation funding sources made the program possible.

Photonics Spectra
Mar 2014
AmericasBiophotonicsConnecticutgreen photonicsJudy DonnellyLASIKlasik eye surgerylight sourcesMarylandmath educationNew HampshireNorth CarolinaNorth Carolina State Universityoptics educationphotonics educationscience educationSTEM educationThree Rivers Community CollegeVirginiaWorkforce of Tomorrowmiddle school sciencehigh school sciencesolar ovenssimulated laser surgeryImhotep Academyindustry-academic collaborationunderrepresented minority studentsminority studentsSTEM careersPhotonics Leaders IIThe Science HouseNorth CarolinePamela Gilchristlasers

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