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SPIE Professional October 2010

Engaged with Optics

Students and educators make optics more "visible" to the outside world.

By Kathy Sheehan

photo of dissected cow's eye from SPIE Optics Outreach Olympics

Participants in the SPIE Optics Outreach Olympics and at an all-day conference on Optics Education and Outreach at SPIE Optics + Photonics in August understand how visual imagery can help engage young people in science education and make optics more visible to the general public.

The Optics Outreach Olympics among 11 SPIE Student Chapters was designed for members of the optics community to share and promote successful outreach efforts. A panel of judges rated the presentations and awarded medals to the top three teams.

A "gold medal" was awarded to a team from the Optics Department at Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE) (Mexico) for the kaleidoscopes, periscopes, and other "optics toys" that they help Mexican youth build to understand the principles of optics and photonics. The team offers simple and inexpensive templates so kids can go home and build their own 3D glasses and other objects that could spark an interest in a career in science.

SPIE Optics Outreach Olympics
Students from the winning teams at the Optics Outreach Olympics.

The silver medal went to the Three Rivers Community College (Connecticut, USA) SPIE Student Chapter for its demonstration of polarized-light art. Students at Three Rivers use the project to show grade-school children how flowers and other shapes made out of clear cellophane can be colorized using light and polarizers.

A bronze medal was awarded to the University of Toronto (Canada) SPIE Student Chapter for its popular laser graffiti project.

Shock value

A team from the University of Arizona that brought several specimens of dissected cow eyes was also popular with the judges and attendees. Katie Schwertz, who received her master's degree in May, said UA students have used the animal eyes in programs at middle schools and high schools to interest young people in science and math and to show how similar the cows eyes are to human eyes and to cameras.

University of Arizona student chapter representatives
University of Arizona representatives at the SPIE Outreach Olympics (left to right): Leonardo Montilla, Katie Schwertz, Zach Newman, Laura Coyle, and Samantha White.
Dissected cow's eye
Middle school students think the dissected cow's eye is gross.

"Gross!" is often the students' first response, she says, "until they look at them, and we explain the different parts." Then, "the response quickly changes to 'Cool!'"

"It was the same thing for me when I first dissected a cow eye," Schwertz says. "I approached it with a lot of trepidation but quickly found that it was a really neat experience."

Judges for the competition were SPIE Senior Members Theresa Axenson of Lockheed Martin Co. (USA) and Cristina Solano Sosa of the Centre de Investigaciones en Óptica (Mexico), Melanie Stuart of San Diego State University (USA), and Marc Nantel of Ontario Centres of Excellence (Canada).

Outreach Olympics

SPIE Student Chapters from the USA, Mexico, Canada, Thailand, South Africa, and Turkey participating in the first Optics Outreach Olympics and their projects:

  • INAOE, Optics Toys
  • Three Rivers Community College, Exploring Polarized Light Art
  • University of Toronto, Laser Graffiti
  • Stellenbosch University, 3D Stereo Vision
  • Koç University, Solar Boat Race
  • University of Calgary, Bridging the Gap Between Astronomy and Optics
  • Chulalongkorn, SPIE Road Show
  • University of Laval, Laser Odyssey
  • Centro de Investigaciones en Óptica, Light as an Energy Source
  • University of Arizona, Cow Eye Dissection
  • Northwestern University, Science behind the Optical Magic

The event, which will be repeated in 2011, also included a tournament of the laser game Khet, a laser light show by Sean Kearney (LaserGuy Productions), and a demonstration of simple telescope optics by SPIE member Richard Youngworth (Light Capture).

Winners of the Khet tournament, in order of finish, were SPIE members Adad Yepiz Escalante (Tecnológico de Monterrey), Hugo Lemieux (Université Laval), Rafael Cosman (La Jolla High School), and Andrea Rosales-Garcia (Boston University).

Best practices in education showcased

In addition to supporting the Active Learning in Optics and Photonics (ALOP) and Education and Training in Optics & Photonics (ETOP) conferences, SPIE sponsored an all-day Optics Education and Outreach conference where educators shared their approaches to engaging students in optics.

The Optics + Photonics conference, chaired by SPIE Fellow G. Groot Gregory, product manager for LightTools at Optical Research Associates, had sessions on professional development, curriculum development, and assessment for educators, and presentations covered informal education such as in student outreach projects and science camps as well as formal programs for kindergarten students on through graduate school.

"It's easy to see that many in the community are contributing to projects on education and outreach," Gregory said, "so I wanted to have a forum that catered to individuals who are not likely to share their experiences at large meetings like ETOP."

Marc Nantel of Ontario Centres of Excellence described a collaboration between industry and academic leaders to establish a bachelor's degree and a certificate program in optics in the Canadian province, and Dan Curticapean, a professor at Hochschule Offenburg (Germany), showed how visual simulations can be used on mobile devices for e-learning to illustrate equations in 3D, gravitational relativity, and other concepts important to optics and photonics.

A presentation by Marco Molinaro illustrated how he and his colleagues at the Center for Biophotonics at the University of California, Davis, overcame the challenge of engaging students in the study of photonics through a first-year undergraduate course that utilized a variety of approaches including interactive demonstrations, discussions with researchers, hands-on laboratories, and the creation of public presentations to communicate biophotonics to others.

The student projects included presentations at local schools and a farmers' market and through online videos. Some of the more creative videos included a cartoon story about "Photon Phoebe" and a simulated "Dating Game" in which the contestant who knows the most about optics gets the date.

Gregory said the one-day conference was successful and he will chair a second conference at SPIE Optics + Photonics in 2012. Papers are open access on the SPIE Digital Library.

ETOP 2011 in Tunisia

The 2011 Conference on Education and Training in Optics and Photonics will be held 8-10 July 2011 in Tunis, Tunisia.

The biennial conference, held in Africa for the first time, will bring together leading optics and photonics educators from all levels and orientations to discuss, demonstrate, and learn about new developments and approaches to teaching.

SPIE is a co-sponsor of the conference. Abstracts are due 15 February.  

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201010.11

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