Just because you're a student doesn't mean you can't teach others. Getting involved in an outreach program is a great way to get elementary and secondary school students excited about optics and engineering.
"Being an effective communicator and emissary of science is a responsibility and a privilege that comes with being a scientist or engineer," says Keivan Stassun, assistant professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN) and outreach advocate.
More than 100 students participated in the student leadership workshop at Optics & Photonics 2006 in August. Pictured here are (left to right) Catalin-Daniel Constantinescu, Konstantin Karapetyan, Yana Williams, and María de la Paz Hernández Garay, as they participate in team-building activities.
At Optics and Photonics 2005, Stassun led the "Student Chapter Leadership Workshop: Focus on Pre-College Outreach." At the workshop, he presented information to student chapter members about inquiry-based learning and outreach, and talked about how the chapters could implement their own outreach programs.
"The enthusiasm from fellow student leaders and from SPIE staff really helped to further fuel our drive to kick-start our outreach activities," says Eugene Chen, 2005-2006 SPIE student chapter president at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada).
After attending the workshop, the chapters spent the year developing and implementing their own outreach programs, and returned to Optics & Photonics in 2006 to present their new programs to their peers.
The chapters not only spent the year teaching others, they also learned some real-world lessons in the process. Time and project management are two examples of such lessons. Allowing enough time to develop an outreach program and dividing the work up are important first steps to successful outreach.
"In my experience, outreach projects are most successful when one or two individuals focus their efforts on outreach only, instead of adding this task onto the duties of the other executives," says Jaron Van Dijken, 2005-2006 University of Alberta chapter secretary.
"We define four projects," says Victor Lopez, vice-president of the Centro de Investigaciones en Óptica (CIO) student chapter (León, Mexico). "Then we designate two chapter members for each project, not specifically the chapter officers, just chapter members, and they take care of those particular projects for six months. So that helps us a lot."
Another key aspect of effective outreach is to make the presentation fun but simple.
"The projects need to be very basic so that young students can appreciate the education aspects, not just the play time," says Van Dijken.
"Programs should be fun, interactive, and should be created so that the students have something to keep from the experience," says Chen.
The body of research on K-12 science education shows that the way information is presented makes a huge impact on how much younger students will absorb and learn. One strategy identified as particularly successful is called inquiry-based learning.
If younger students are simply lectured to and given a string of facts, they consequently are given information out of context, and they often find putting the facts back together into a whole concept difficult. Inquiry-based learning, on the other hand, engages students and makes them active participants in the learning process. This allows them to see the whole concept and truly learn the lesson.
"Students do not come to understand inquiry simply by learning words such as hypothesis and inference or by memorizing procedures such as the steps of the scientific method," says Stassun. "They must experience inquiry directly to gain a deep understanding of its characteristics. Experience and understanding must go together."
There are many examples of inquiry-based learning in student outreach programs. For instance, both the University of Arizona and the University of Alberta chapters have versions of a laser maze. The Alberta chapter has also taught students how to make mood patches, while the CIO chapter has organized science clubs for elementary school students.
"Really the most essential thing is simply knowing what kinds of misconceptions the audience is most likely to have, and to then structure an activity that forces the audience to confront those misconceptions," says Stassun.
Outreach does not necessarily have to focus on younger kids. High school students can benefit from outreach as well. Many universities also invite speakers to give non-technical talks that can appeal to anyone from high school to post-graduate levels.
"We have invited [SPIE Fellow] Joan Lurie, who works in remote sensing, in order to complement what we've already learned here and what's currently being worked on in other countries," says Paulino Vacas-Jacques, chapter president at CIO.
In the end, the main reason these student chapters reach out is to share their love and understanding of optics and photonics.
"I feel very strongly that with the technical and personnel resources that we have here at the College of Optical Sciences, the SPIE student chapter could potentially have a tremendous impact in supporting science education in our local schools," says Ben Richards, chapter president at the University of Arizona (Tuscon, AZ).
"To elementary school kids, most optical phenomena seems like magic, so it is nice to help them solve these mysteries," says Van Dijken.
Students as Teachers
SPIE student chapter members at the University of California, Davis, presented their "Laser Maze" as inspiration to other chapters at the student leadership workshop in 2005.
For the laser maze, students have to navigate an obstacle course of lasers that also keeps a stereo playing, and are "out" if they step into the laser, therefore stopping the music. A few chapters took the idea and ran with it.
"Members from our chapter made upgrades to the original design idea," writes Aleksandr Klyashitsky, 2005-2006 vice-president of the University of Alberta chapter. "Instead of using fog generated by a fog machine, water sprayers were used to let students creatively spray water in the air to see the laser lines and then avoid them."
At the Optics & Photonics 2006 Student Leadership Day, students participated in an "Outreach Rodeo" where teams competed in two optics-related activities -- a laser challenge and a communications challenge. The rodeo winner was chosen by a random drawing from the top two teams of each activity. Alpesh Chaddha of the Delhi College of Engineering (Delhi, India) won the drawing and received a high-end video camera, startup kit, tripod, and microphone to help his chapter further improve their outreach.
Beth Huetter, SPIE Staff Editor