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New Degrees Grow Tomorrow's Photonics Work Force

Photonics Spectra
Jun 2005
Anne L. Fischer

As the photonics industry demands a larger work force, it faces a shortfall of skilled workers. Several initiatives are under way at colleges to enhance photonics education. These schools increasingly are collaborating with industry to ensure that they produce a work force that the photonics industry needs today and that is well versed in the technologies of tomorrow.

New Degrees Grow Tomorrow's Photonics Work ForceSan Jose City College is a two-year school aware of the need for workers with photonics training. It is a member of the California Photonics Consortium, which includes representatives from industry, two- and four-year colleges, high schools and work-force agencies. Although there are at least 35 postsecondary programs in photonics in the US alone, consortium members recognize the need to increase awareness of photonics as a career path.

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, San Jose hopes to do just that with the opening of Cal-Optec, the California Photonics and Educational Training Center. The center's goals include increasing the number of students seeking postsecondary education in photonics, enhancing instructor knowledge of photonics, building photonics programs and fostering connections between schools and industry.

Companies help develop curriculum

Consortium members work with the college to develop the curriculum and often identify their own immediate needs in technicians. Companies such as Spectra-Physics of Mountain View (now a division of Newport Corp.) and Coherent Inc. of Santa Clara have needs different from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, but each has a say in helping to develop a balanced course of study.

Robert Steinhaus, a graduate of San Jose, has been an instructor at the school and has served as Lawrence Livermore's representative to its curriculum committee. He has determined that there are three types of students in photonics. The first, which makes up about 20 percent of the classes, includes students right out of high school who are interested in careers in photonics. The second, about half the students, works on the production floor of local industries during the day and studies at night so as to learn more and be better at their jobs. The third comprises field-service technicians who have higher skill levels than the others and who are there to learn state-of-the art techniques and to improve their skills.

Each set of students brings different needs to the program. The objective is to have all leave with a well-rounded set of fundamentals so they can not only be more competent on the production floor, but also master the skills necessary for working in research and development.

Science and business

It used to be that a scientist with business savvy was an anomaly. One was either a techie or a businessperson.

The University of Arizona's Optical Sciences Center in Tucson was recently renamed the College of Optical Sciences. In partnership with the university's Eller College of Management, it is jointly offering master's degrees in optical sciences and in business administration.

James Wyant, dean of the college, said the program is "very tough." He said the ideal student has been in the optics industry for three years or more and has been sent to the program by the company for which he or she works. The course of study is a full-time, two-year commitment, plus a summer, but Wyant believes that students can shave that time by completing a share of the optics courses through the university's distance learning program before beginning the course.

Amar Gupta, who holds the Brown chair in technology and management at the business school, is a driving force behind the dual-degree program, which is one of several at the university that combine a science and a business degree. He thinks that companies will send students to the program as an incentive. "That person will be an ambassador for the company, and they can do joint research with the university while their people are here," he said.

Whether at the graduate or undergraduate level, the biggest changes in photonics education and training are being driven by industry. Industry affiliates are raising their collective voices, hoping that their needs for skilled workers will be met through these new programs.

Hanna J. Hoffman, a technical consultant to Spectra-Physics, recalled that just a short time ago there was not a college-level-degree program in photonics to be found. Things have changed, and she pointed to the University of Southampton in the UK, Stanford University in California and the University of Central Florida in Orlando as examples of institutions that offer graduate degrees targeting lasers and other aspects of photonics.

The challenge to education is to keep pace with industry need. Hoffman noted that, when the boom in high-power fiber lasers started four or five years ago, few if any colleges or universities in the US could give students the background in the specialty that companies required.

Biophotonics may be at a similar crossroads. Colleges recognize the emergence of this interdisciplinary field, but well-rounded degree programs -- especially at the undergraduate and master's level -- that combine biology with optics, photonics and lasers still need to be developed.
When universities offer joint or dual-degree programs along these lines, optics companies will welcome the graduates with open arms.

BusinessCal-Opteclight speedNational Science Foundation

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