Engaging in optics

A new consortium raises student awareness of photonics and helps educators bring science to light.

Ask middle-school or high-school students what they plan to become when they grow up, and you’re likely to hear predictable responses: doctor, lawyer, athlete, musician, politician, and so on. Few will mention careers as designers, engineers, technicians, or scientists in the photonics and electronic-imaging fields. Most young people simply do not know that such career options exist or even understand the importance of photonics and imaging in their daily lives.

The Consortium for Optics and Imaging Education (COIE) is dedicated to helping correct this lack of awareness. Funded in the summer of 2000 by the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program of the National Science Foundation, COIE is a collaborative effort of the Optical Systems Technology (OST) program at Monroe Community College and the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science (CIS) at the Rochester Institute of Technology, both of Rochester, NY, and the Center for Image Processing in Education (CIPE), a Tucson-based nonprofit organization.

“The photonics and imaging industries want people with technical skills—now!” says Robert Novak, principal investigator for the consortium and chairman of the OST program at Monroe Community College. “But we have a difficult time attracting students into our program. Even though we’re situated in Rochester, an optics and imaging center, students coming to Monroe Community College don’t know what photonics and imaging are. Worse yet, they haven’t prepared themselves properly to enroll in a technical program.”

According to Novak and a growing number of educators, industry representatives, and policymakers, two key trends are challenging the ability of the United States to address a growing shortage of technical personnel in the photonics and imaging fields. Foremost is a declining interest in science among young people. Second is a lack of perceived need among students to seek academic preparation in physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Many students do not see the subjects as relevant to their current lives or future careers.

COIE hopes to counter these trends by involving young people in hands-on explorations of photonics and imaging concepts. The consortium will promote these explorations by developing a photonics- and electronic-imaging-based curriculum for teaching physical science. COIE also will conduct professional development workshops for high-school and college educators to help them integrate photonics and imaging science into their teaching. The new materials will be derived from the discovery-based style of instruction fine-tuned by CIPE under a previous ATE grant. This approach to education involves students in the use of imaging and optics technologies as early as grades three and four.

A nonprofit organization that promotes computer-aided visualization as a tool for teaching and learning, CIPE conducts workshops and develops instructional materials that use image analysis and geographic information systems technologies as platforms for teaching about science, mathematics, and technology. CIPE’s approach to science education captures students’ interest because it is visual, interactive, and self-guided. Students use the same tools employed by scientists and technicians in research and industry.

Because the $600,000 COIE project will provide a model for preparing optics and imaging technicians nationwide, it already has attracted the participation of leading corporations and professional associations. The Eastman Kodak Co., Tropel Corp., American Precision Optics Manufacturers Association, Melles Griot, all located in Rochester, and the Society for Imaging Science and Technology (Springfield, VA) are participating in the consortium.

“Photonics and electronic imaging are the killer applications for the twenty-first century,” says Roger Easton, imaging science faculty at CIS and a co-principal investigator on the project. “Once students appreciate the photonics and imaging science behind the miracles of everyday technologies—and that real people like themselves make those miracles happen—the rest will be easy. Instead of having to search for good people to work in these fields, they’ll come looking for us.”

(By Steven Moore, Center for Image Processing in Education, OE magazine, April, 2001)

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