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SPIE Professional October 2007

Connect Minds, Advance Light

We need to encourage young people to see science as a future career in order to better serve society.

"Advancing an interdisciplinary approach to the science and application of light." You will see this on the splendid new SPIE website, which went live in May. It reflects accurately our collective ambitions within the Society.

We need to propagate our aspirations widely and most emphatically to the young among us. We do, along with virtually every other professional society in engineering and physical sciences, regularly anguish the diminishing interest among the young for engineering and physical sciences.

We of the graying hair love to assign "blame" to an all too familiar litany of innocent parties: math in schools, shortage of teachers in physical sciences, "it is just too difficult," the collapse of industrial conglomerates, and the drift of manufacturing eastward. We jump to the conclusion that young people are influenced by such grand things at the ages of 8 to 12 when ideas, interests, and even aspirations begin to coalesce.

But aren't we in danger of underestimating our young people and their basic integrity? They often flock to psychology and English out of interest rather than direct career aspiration. Engineering and physical sciences are viewed as "vocational" so the concept of learning through the discipline rather than for it is inherently alien.

This issue is more fundamental though. I believe that the combination of inherent interest and the perception that one might make a difference remains a strong motivator. The technophiles of the hippie generation perhaps felt that computers made from relays and vacuum tube radios built in the garden shed would lay the foundation for the phone for everyone—and we certainly have seen technologies based on physical sciences become so successful they have actually become invisible.

So where are today's technology headlines that could influence the scientific teenager? Where might he or she have a chance to make a difference? Just this year, the Large Hadron Collider is making science program headlines. Yet another editorial on biofuels has appeared in Science. Countless will die from infectious diseases, and the prospects of gene therapy for longevity and obesity are splashed over the tabloids. Not much here for tangible physical science . . . but wait, there is a connection.

Scientific and technological progress in all these domains builds on tools and techniques originating from the physical sciences and engineering. Furthermore, increased progress will require better and better tools. The young, though, have an understandably one-dimensional perspective. Just as many of us had 40 years ago.

It is here that our "interdisciplinary approach to advancing the science and application of light" is so relevant and critical. Putting across the message is far from simple. SPIE, our Society, already has DVDs and posters that make many of these points, but we need to add to our evangelists to disseminate "The Word" with passion and conviction. Many of our student chapters and indeed many of our more mature members devote time and effort to working with local schools and young people's communities.

Making progress in the immensely challenging issues of global survival that currently face our communities depends so much on this interdisciplinary teamwork. Somehow our young enthusiasts need a clear perception of this need. Our Society has much to offer to help spread the message, and we are always open to more inspiration from you, our members. Thoughts on a postcard please, or to update the language—in e-mail.

Community-building tools

There are plentiful ways to become more active in your community and encourage science education. Remember that an enormous difference can be made by many people making small efforts.

First off, contact area schools to see how you can help. One way is to volunteer as a science fair judge. Or offer to assist with an optics demonstration or speak on your expertise in class.

SPIE has several resources that you can suggest to your local schools. For example, you could coordinate the dissemination of complimentary SPIE optics and photonics posters or educational CDs, including the DVD "Optics: Light at Work," which promotes interest in careers in optics.

Even just letting teachers know about the Resources for Educators page at spie.org/educators is helpful. Here they can explore ways to incorporate optics into their classes. In fact, check it out yourself, it may spark even more volunteer ideas.

Brian Culshaw, 2007 SPIE President

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200710.01