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Education: Expanding Photonics Education

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2009
Caren B. Les,

Photonics-based careers have become much more rewarding and diverse, according to Thomas M. Baer, 2009 Optical Society of America (OSA) president and executive director of Stanford Photonics Research Center in California.

After traveling and meeting with educators worldwide, Baer said that there are numerous educational programs that incorporate photonics, many of which cut across a broad range of scientific and technology fields, including telecommunications, medical diagnostics, nuclear fusion, renewable energy and video displays. Students are excited, he said, because the basic skills they acquired in their photonics education now can be applied in these diverse areas.

Online involvement

The development of the Internet has greatly expanded the degree to which photonics is integrated into the university engineering curriculum, Baer said. He added that, on a global basis, photonics education is likely to play an integral role in the core curriculum of university departments such as medicine, computer science, biology and geophysics, and that we can expect to see advanced photonics courses offered in engineering, medicine, physics and chemistry departments. Web access to these course materials could provide an unparalleled resource for educators worldwide, he said.

In speaking with graduate students at a recent OSA student chapter leadership conference, Baer said he was stunned to learn that some of them had never read a scientific article in a print journal, and that their sole channel for acquiring information was through the online download of pdf files. He predicts that, with support from scientific and engineering societies, worldwide online access to educational materials, scientific data and technical information will continue to expand exponentially to become a first-rate global resource.

He noted that the students he met at the leadership conference were interested in gaining access to photonics research programs and industrial opportunities worldwide, and they showed a great capacity for networking and information sharing.


Students from around the world attended the October 2008 OSA student chapter annual meeting in Rochester, N.Y. There are more than 140 such chapters on university campuses worldwide. One representative from each community was invited to attend the event, which focused on new ideas for inspiring high school students to pursue careers in optics. Photo courtesy of the Optical Society of America.

The day is coming when students worldwide will have access to premium educational programs and materials no matter where they live, he predicts. He believes that the next generation of scientists and engineers in the field are creating an environment where students and the photonics community will exchange ideas and establish and maintain lifelong professional relationships through online communication tools.

Technology such as remote meeting participation, on-demand videocasts and event simulcasts also could help defray travel costs for students worldwide who wish to attend technical meetings, he said.

Real-world involvement

Keeping teens interested in science is a major concern for photonics educators, according to Marc Nantel, director of business development at Ontario Centres of Excellence, Centre for Photonics, and adjunct professor of physics at the University of Toronto, both in Canada. He noted that educators are working hard to attract students to engineering and the hard sciences, and that many programs worldwide have been developed with that goal in mind.

The Boston-based New England Board of Higher Education’s (NEBHE) Photon Problem-Based Learning (PBL) photonics curriculum and professional development represents such a program and modern approaches. It is designed to demonstrate the relevance of photonics in the real world to high school and college students through a student-centered problem-solving approach. Moving away from traditional classroom lectures, the program features multimedia challenges that are developed in collaboration with industry and research university partners. It is funded by the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va., and emphasizes teamwork in solving problems, Nantel said.

NEBHE’s Photon PBL project has a segment that involves instructing teachers to be better prepared to present the material – representing another trend in photonics education, according to Nantel. He said that, when science teachers have more knowledge of optics, gained through seminars and workshops, for example, they are more likely to have the confidence to teach it.

Photonics educators are getting together to collaborate on projects and to discuss best practices and tricks for teaching, he said. He noted that regional clusters or groups of educators such as the Ontario Photonics Education and Training group are forming and are particularly effective at achieving specific goals when the need arises. Such clusters on an international scale seem to have been too diffuse to survive, he added.

Nantel said that the international ETOP – Education and Training in Optics Conference, sponsored by SPIE, OSA and other organizations, is a major event for photonics educators, having drawn attendees from every continent except Antarctica. Organizers of the biennial event make funding available as much as possible to enable representatives from underresourced countries to attend.

Early education matters

Baer said he has sat through programs for preschool children that introduce them to color, the properties of white light, prisms and even lasers, and has been amazed at the level of excitement these topics generate in not only young children but also their parents. He said we cannot start the education process too early and that educators must make age-appropriate materials available.

Nantel mentioned that there are many science programs for children worldwide, citing the Scientists in School program as an example. Founded in 1989 in Ajax, Ontario, Canada, the nonprofit charitable organization has more than 300 scientists and technical experts who bring to the classroom a wide variety of hands-on workshops that are aligned with the Ontario Elementary Science and Technology Curriculum.

The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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