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SPIE Professional July 2013

Optics Outreach Evolves

OptoBotics℠ combines optics, photonics, and robotics to engage high-school students.

By Donn Silberman

After 10 years of bringing optics and photonics to students and the general public, the Optics Institute of Southern California (OISC) (USA)  is developing a new outreach program especially for high-school students.

Our mission is to work with young people  (mostly high school and college students) and to introduce them to the wonderful world of optics and photonics. Our new OptoBotics program shows students how optics and photonics components are integrated into robotic systems in many areas of everyday life, science, and industry.

OptoBotics materials, presentations, workshops, kits, books, activity guides, and events can help students understand everything from the most basic concepts about photonics to the most complex systems such as those aboard Curiosity, the roving vehicle exploring the surface of Mars.

Epiphany came during outreach activity

Our transition from doing traditional optics outreach presentations began in 2007 when the OISC was invited to present at the University of California at Los Angeles Sci |Art NanoLab Summer Institute for high-school juniors. I used the lenses, polarizers, and other interactive tools from my Optricks Suitcase while a friend from the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab at the California Institute of Technology did a presentation on remote sensing using optics and photonics.

My friend Mark was a big hit, and the students were buzzing outside the auditorium during the break.

Ever since then, I knew we had to make significant improvements in our outreach efforts to high-school students, as they are the ones who will go to college and beyond using the optics and photonics that piqued their interests from our interactions.

To make our outreach efforts more appealing to high-school students, we began weaving remote sensing concepts into OISC presentations. However, it still did not create that very special instant recognition and ‘ah-ha’ moment I was seeking.

A couple of years later, I saw a new science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) outreach business open its doors near my office at Physik Instrumente (PI) in Irvine, CA. It was called Mathobotix. I was intrigued and stopped by one day to see what was going on.

Mathobotix was all about using the LEGO robotics tools to get kids interested in math and science.

Its success in engaging students in the fun side of STEM got me thinking about ways to get optics and photonics into the mix with robotics.

Then one day in January 2012, while participating in the Irvine Valley College Astounding Inventions competition and exhibition, I saw a student in a high-school robotics team try to put his iPhone on his robot. That was the moment it hit me.

He was having trouble figuring out how to give his robot eyes. The word came into my mind: OptoBotics℠.

I knew then that teaching students in robotics clubs how to implement optical technologies into their robots would capture their imaginations and encourage them to use optics and photonics in their college studies and careers.

Launching a new program: OptoBotics℠

My new friend from Mathobotix asked me to speak at one of his open houses, so I created a new presentation with the OptoBotics℠ concept and delivered it to a packed house in March 2012. While the presentation went OK — my key wireless video demonstration was all static and there were several other technical difficulties — I knew I still had to have that killer demonstration to capture the students’ attention before I could teach them anything.

Shortly after that, while walking through an airport shop, I saw my first commercially available drone. The Parrot AR.Drone is a flying quadricopter with a wireless, high-definition video camera that you control from your SmartPhone or tablet. This was the demo that I needed.


The drone is a flying quadricopter.

I bought one when I returned home and integrated it into the presentation I had created months before. At our next big event, the University of California, Irvine Beall Center for Art + Technology Family day in November, I tried it out.

It was a big hit with the all-ages audience. We streamed live video onto an overhead LCD projector so the audience could see themselves from the flying camera in real time.

We now have several OptoBotics℠ demonstrations under development and will be beta testing them with high-school robotics clubs. We hope to bring OptoBotics℠ materials, presentations, workshops, kits, books, activity guides, and events to as many groups as we can manage.

Read more about OptoBotics℠.

See photos from more than 75 OISC outreach events.

Donn SilbermanSPIE Senior member Donn Silberman is founding director of the Optics Institute of Southern California (oisc.net), a non-profit promoting math, science, and engineering education through the use of optics. A senior applications engineer for Physik Instrumente (PI), he also founded and serves as the chair of the Advisory Committee for the UC Irvine Optical Engineering and Instrument Design certificate programs. Silberman has an MS in technology management from Pepperdine University and a BS in engineering physics from University of Arizona.

Science education and the National Photonics Initiative

Many organizations have drawn attention to the alarming number of jobs in the United States that are or will go unfilled because of a shortage of employees with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills.

Since enhanced science education and outreach efforts are key to attracting young people to careers and college studies in STEM fields, the Optical Institute of Southern California is focusing on students at the secondary-school level, where decisions about college and career are being made.

A white paper from the alliance promoting the U.S.-based National Photonics Initiative (NPI) has also recommended increased investment in science education and job-training programs.

“A well-trained manufacturing workforce is essential to regaining and maintaining U.S. leadership in advanced manufacturing,” the NPI white paper says. STEM education should therefore include a photonics curriculum in high school and two-year institutions, with a focus on photonics-related engineering programs.

Read more about the proposed NPI.

SPIE supports optics and photonics education outreach

This Optics Institute of Southern California is one of 25 organizations receiving an SPIE Education Outreach grant so far this year. (See the full list of grant recipients.)

As part of its mission, SPIE provides support for optics- and photonics-related education outreach projects that promote optics and photonics awareness.

Qualifying not-for-profit organizations such as universities, optics centers, science centers, primary and secondary schools, youth clubs, industry associations, and international optical societies are eligible for project support.

The next deadline for SPIE education outreach grant applications is 31 January 2014.

Read more about SPIE Education Outreach grants.


DOI: 10.1117/2.4201307.20

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