At SPIE, those who can teach, do!

Course instructors Daniel Vukobratovich, Jessica DeGroote Nelson, and Salvador Venegas-Andraca break the experience down for us
12 May 2021
by Daneet Steffens
Image of SPIE course instructors Jessica DeGroote Nelson, Daniel Vukobratovich, and Salvador Venegas-Andraca
Top of their Class: (L to R) DeGroote Nelson, Vukobratovich, Venegas-Andraca.

SPIE courses range from the basic "Basic Optics for Engineers" to the advanced "Principles and Applications of Optical Coherence Tomography," from online courses and instructional webinars to onsite teaching at conferences.

Teaching an SPIE course can be a terrific way to get involved with the Society and its wider community, as well as providing multiple perks: being a course instructor can include conference-fee waivers, honorariums, and paid travel expenses.

But those are just the logistical benefits. To gain more insight into the whys and wherefores of SPIE courses and the people behind them, we tapped three of our course instructors to enlighten us. The outcome? A plethora of reasons to become a course instructor. Just why is teaching an SPIE course a terrific professional opportunity? Read on!

It's a great way to become an integral — even life-long — part of the SPIE community.

• "I'd always enjoyed making presentations," says Daniel Vukobratovich who has been teaching his SPIE course in opto-mechanics since 1985. "I also thought that this, opto-mechanics, was an important topic. When I first taught it, before it was an event-based course, I thought, ‘Well, there are maybe 30 people in the whole world who are interested in this.' A large group from aerospace companies in California took the course and they just ate this material up. SPIE said, ‘We're getting really good feedback; let's do this again.' And to make the logistics a bit easier they said, ‘Dan, why don't we do it as part of an SPIE meeting?' Back then there was no PowerPoint; I had to travel by air lugging 400 Vu-Graphs with me and it was like dragging an anvil. But the class was phenomenally successful. Last year I received the SPIE President's Award for my teaching. SPIE tried to figure out how many courses I'd taught over the years, and they got to somewhere north of 100."

• "I became fascinated by the unique atmosphere that I found at my first SPIE conference," says Salvador Venegas-Andraca, who teaches SPIE courses on quantum computation, quantum cryptography, and quantum sensors, and whose first paper was published during SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing in 2003. "It was an outstanding blend of academic work and business with solid engineering applications, especially within the military realm. I thought that becoming an SPIE instructor would be a tremendous opportunity for me to expose my ideas to the experienced scientists and engineers who attend SPIE conferences. Moreover, as a professor of computer science and mathematics in Mexico, I thought that delivering courses for SPIE would give me terrific experiences to share with my students as well as to enhance my own teaching capabilities. I was right on all counts."

It's an organic networking platform.

• "For me, teaching for SPIE is very much about the people that I meet," says Jessica DeGroote Nelson whose "How to Make Cost-Effective Optical Components," a high-level overview of her in-person and online course "Optical Materials, Fabrication and Testing for the Optical Engineer," was one of 2020's top three SPIE instructional webinars. "I find that every time I teach, I actually learn. People who take the course, most of the time they already have a lot of experience in different facets of optics, so I get a lot of good questions, a lot of good discussion. And anytime you give a presentation, I find that the best thing that comes out of it is the networking that happens after the course. That really opens up great opportunities to talk, share, and collaborate."

There's a technical, hands-on element just outside the classroom door.

• "Onsite, at conferences like Photonics West and Optifab, the exhibit becomes a useful resource," says DeGroote Nelson. "With a lot of the examples I use in my course, I can actually direct attendees to specific vendors or their materials or metrology techniques. That's extremely helpful, especially because my field is very hands-on. It's great to be able to point to a specific, tangible example for people to look at."

• "One of the things I find extremely useful in terms of preparing to teach," says Vukobratovich, "is simply walking around the exhibit hall at an SPIE meeting and talking with people: it gives me a feel for what people are interested in in terms of current technologies. I can't say enough about those walking-the-hall conversations. I revise my course notes constantly and this is a great way of staying on top of the field and augmenting the material that I cover."

You can use it as a career-development tool and to create new resources.

• "If you're interested in writing a tutorial text on a certain subject or a book on your topic," DeGroote Nelson points out, "course notes are a really great way to start that process. Taking the course notes and moving them into a book is a natural progression, and also a really great way to show your perspective within the industry as a whole."

• "Creatively, I invest a significant amount of time and energy thinking of interesting activities and computational tools to maximize the learning experience," says Venegas-Andraca. "For example, I made an Excel-based simulator of a quantum key distribution protocol. I use this simulator to show concrete examples of how to produce private keys — a most important resource for cryptographic protocols — using quantum mechanics."

It keeps you on your professional toes.

• "Optics is such a dynamic community," says Vukobratovich. "One of the pleasures that I derive from teaching is in answering questions. People always ask me interesting questions and I enjoy thinking, "Gee, how do I answer that?" It's interesting to me to find out from the people attending the course what their particular interests and concerns are. For example, when I first taught the course, there was a lot of interest in large and lightweight mirrors — people couldn't get enough information on that. But as time went on, interest in that waned and the emphasis changed to working on smaller optics. So I reduced the amount of material on large and lightweight mirrors and moved on to talking about smaller optics."

• "SPIE conference attendees are experienced engineers and scientists who have built successful careers," notes Venegas-Andraca. "I assume that those who attend my courses will be very demanding, expecting outstanding technical presentations and a good balance between theory and applications. I have to produce courses that are interesting and dynamic enough to keep the audience's attention, with a good mix of theoretical analysis and practical problems and applications. Furthermore, every topic and activity addressed in my courses must significantly contribute towards a comprehensive understanding of the subject."

• "It's a way to increase your effectiveness in communication," says DeGroote Nelson. "If you can actively teach something in a way that people can understand what you're talking about, then it helps you in the long run to be able to communicate accurately and clearly in general. It's an opportunity to share your expertise with others, and to gain from their responses and feedback. It helps the whole industry move forward when you have others sharing their voices and their perspectives in class. Certain portions of my course have been added due to some of those conversations."

It's basically a no-brainer, sums up Vukobratovich — as well as a terrific way to give back to the optics and photonics community. "You gain a thorough understanding of the material," he says, counting the reasons off on his fingers. "You get very timely feedback. And it's good for your professional reputation. If you do a good job — and pardon me for saying this but it's rare for an SPIE instructor not to do a good job — you very quickly gain a very favorable reputation. I will also add that I feel that those of us who have learned about opto-mechanics have a responsibility to give back to the community. If I put myself in the position that I was in when I first started out, I would have really appreciated this type of an asset. So I think it's important for those of us with experience, who have been around for a while, to pass on that tribal wisdom, if you will, to younger engineers, to those in the community who are moving up."

Find out more about SPIE courses and how to submit your own course proposal here. For any questions, you can also email the SPIE courses department.

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