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Optical Design & Engineering

"Where does light come from?" -- Invasion of the fifth graders

In this article from the November 1997 edition of OE Reports, the late Douglas Goodman recounts his experiences as an optical physicist leading fifth graders on a tour of the Polaroid Corp.
1 November 1997, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.6199711.01

For some years, there has been an arrangement between the Polaroid Optical Engineering Department and the fifth grade class of the public Edward Devotion School (Brookline, MA). Optics is part of the science curriculum of this class. We interact with students on three occasions annually through a program run by Carolyn Miller, Resource Teacher for the Gifted and Talented. First, the class visits our department to learn something about optics and what we do. Later, some of us visit them twice to help with their optics projects. The latter two activities, in which we are mainly supporting cast, are not discussed here. The school system can be contacted for information. These visits have evolved, as we discovered what works and what the kids like. Actually, we haven't found anything they don't like. The visit lasts about two hours. Enough teachers and parental sheep dogs come to maintain order. We have evolved a five-part arrangement as follows:

Optical toys
The activity begins in a conference room with a large table on which a number of optical devices are arranged. Diagrams showing some of what can be done with the gadgets are taped to the table. The devices include simple optical elements such as lenses, plastic spheres and hemispheres, plastic cylinders, Fresnel lenses, prisms, gratings, color filters, and so on. Also provided are more complicated apparatus, such as kaleidoscopes, light boxes with polarizing film and birefringent plastic, and anamorphic art reflection apparatus. Anything the students can handle safely is fair game. This activity is hands on, and the kids investigate the equipment, moving about at their own rate. They ask questions, explore, and try their own juxtapositions of the apparatus. It is pleasing to see them looking at things with fresh eyes, trying things that we pros would never think to try. We have an instant camera on hand, and the kids ask to take pictures and be photographed with their friends. Watching the film change from a streaky gray to an actual image fascinates them.

Next we show the students much of our facility. The class is divided into smaller groups, each led by a guide from Polaroid, with a teacher or parent bringing up the rear. Each group sees everything, but in different orders. The employees at the various tourist attractions have previously agreed to participate and are ready to show the students what they do. People are delighted to participate. We show the kids everything in the place, high tech, low tech, no tech, and they like it all. Everything is new to them and there is no way to tell what will catch their interest most. For example, an unexpected favorite was the thin-film vacuum deposition chamber, where you really can't see too much. The students are fascinated by a computer-aided design system, where a complicated image can be rotated and viewed from different angles. (I had anticipated that the computerized kids of today would find this passé.) The kids love to see how things are made, so the optics shop and plastic molding apparatus have been pronounced "awesome." They are fascinated by the machine shop. (They must be warned in advance about safety here. One kid was determined to pick up a handful of metal chips from the lathe pan. And why not? These chips are fascinating.) The tour is also an opportunity to let the students see people of all races and genders in the workplace.

After touring, we return to the conference room and give them some juice, soda, doughnuts, muffins, etc.

We darken the room and do some demonstrations. We make moiré patterns on the overhead projector and diffraction patterns from a small laser. We illuminate the room with a black light and the students love it. Nearly everyone is wearing something that fluoresces. All the while, we do some explaining, and whenever possible I mention practical applications of what we are showing. (The black light, for example, can be used to find cat urine, which beats getting down on all fours and sniffing.)

Stump the so-called experts
Finally, the house lights are raised and the students ask questions. This is the toughest part of the gig. Sometimes we don't know the answers. Sometimes we do, but don't know how to explain things at a fifth-grade level. Sometimes, we can't figure out what the kids want to know (learning how to answer kid questions is an area where I would like some training). It helps to have a couple of "experts" standing around, so whoever is moved to answer or understands the question can do so. When totally stumped, it is always possible to use the infamous technique of tossing the question back, asking the mob, "does anybody have an idea?" In the ensuing chaos, you can attempt to regain your regal composure.

Some questions are totally unconnected with the subject at hand. One question was about time zones. The most surprising question I ever got was "What has been your most important scientific discovery?" The kids have no notion--may their innocence be preserved as long as possible--of all the mundane and obnoxious things that adults must do. They watch Nova and think that we "scientists" just hang out and make important discoveries. The best, and almost true, answer I could come up with was, "That I could earn a living doing something I enjoy." At least there was no follow-up question. The kids have no respect! They will ask you anything. They will make you look bad. They will make you realize how little like Richard Feynman you are. This is guaranteed to happen, so just accept it as a humbling, character-building experience. When you can't take it any more, send them back to school.

When the students are back at school, their teacher has them write thank-you notes, which are sent to me. I make sure that the other participants see them, and I point out the ones relating to their activities. The notes are precious. The food is given high mention.

Douglas S. Goodman works in the Optical Engineering Dept. of Polaroid Corp., Cambridge, MA.

Fifth graders thank Polaroid

Some verbatim excerpts from the notes (with misspellings)
  • I enjoyed the machine that crushed the glass and spurted water at the window looking in.
  • ...the lenses were cool.
  • ...that was awesome.
  • I also liked the part with the overlapping shapes.
  • My favorite part of the tour was seeing a lens being made and getting to hold it after it was done.
  • I was really interested in everything you had. Mostly everything I didn't know was great.
  • I mostly enjoyed the pictures that are made on the computer.
  • The things on the table that you let us play with were really neat.
  • I liked when we were shown the optical illusions (and the donuts weren't bad either).
  • The fluorescent lights were really cool especially when it made our clothes glow.
  • I also liked how we could play around and experiment with all the things on the table.
  • I especially liked the floricene and the red powder.
  • I thought the part where you guys took two pieces of paper with lines on them was interesting, because it is like you can find whole knew worlds inside a confusing pattern!
  • I liked the...part best because we actually got to play with optical tools.
  • The way you use your prizims and all the other toys. The lenses were cool.
  • It was very interesting for me to see how they take such big blocks and make it into such little lens.
  • I also liked when you showed us how they make the mirrors in the vacuum vault.
  • Thank for using your money to buy us snacks because I haden't ate breakfast that day and was really hungry.
  • I liked the holographic peanut too.
  • My favorite room was the moulding room.
  • I like how it makes a cool design on a piece of plastic.
  • ...the machines looked interesting but confusing.
  • I liked the machine that could lift the block of granite.
  • I learned how lenses were desinged.
  • I thought the tables supported by air ... were especially neat!
  • ...the silver atoms fly up and sit on the glass. It's so cool.
  • It was amazing to see the silver that looked like ribbons in the cutting machine.
  • I really enjoyed to look at how you make the steel smooth and place where there was the very, very, very heavy machine and Mr. Goodman pushed it around because it was on a thin layer of air.
  • I learned a lot by seing what other people do even if they weren't there.
  • Thank you very much for letting us come to Polarode.
  • I had a great time at Polirod.
  • Keep up the good work.