Photonics education: Champion the interdisciplinary

01 July 2021
By Stephanie Claussen
Photonics Education

When I was a PhD student working in photonics, I often felt uncertain about my professional identity. When my advisor wanted my lab mates and me to rely on our ingenuity to get an optical measurement experiment working, he would admonish us to "think like engineers." When he thought we needed to return to the underlying science of our work to understand what was happening, he would urge us to "think like physicists." The feeling of occupying this liminal space between engineering and the sciences did not dissipate as I began my career as a faculty member. Though all my degrees, bachelor's through PhD, were in electrical engineering, and my first faculty appointment was in an electrical engineering department, one colleague opined that my research was solely the domain of the physicists in the building next door.

And yet, it was the interdisciplinary nature of photonics that first drew me to the field as an undergraduate student, and that I use to excite my own students. I tell them that photonics sits at an intersection of engineering, physics, and materials science, and so requires knowledge across disciplines. This interdisciplinary quality may be one reason for a higher proportion of female graduate students in photonics than other fields of engineering and science. Engineering education research papers and policy documents often propose that interdisciplinary studies are particularly attractive for underrepresented minorities and women. And the numbers in photonics, where 33 percent of PhD students in the US are female, compared to 16 percent in electrical engineering and 19 percent in physics, would seem to bear this out.

Photonics education is as difficult to characterize as the field itself. Depending on the university, photonics graduate students regularly take classes offered by multiple academic departments. There are few degree-granting optical engineering programs, and most people working in photonics have physics or engineering degrees. The majority have advanced degrees: 57 percent have PhDs and 20 percent have a master's degree, which is when the bulk of photonics education takes place.

Because of these unique aspects of photonics education, it is difficult to identify what improvements or innovations are required in the way we teach and mentor future photonics professionals. Engineering education has been a growing field of research, and it is where my own research program is now largely focused. Physics education is a similarly robust area of scholarship. Though photonics education is rarely specifically studied, we can look to the engineering and physics education research to identify possible changes that would better serve our students. The following suggestions might make a good start.

Focus on graduate education

For those who research and design curricula for engineering and physics education, graduate-level education must be taken into consideration. If we are concerned about the so-called STEM pipeline, we need to devote time and resources to understanding effective and equitable ways to educate and mentor our graduate students. This is especially relevant to photonics because a graduate degree is often required to work in this discipline.

Champion interdisciplinary work

Since I began graduate school 15 years ago, I have heard numerous colleagues malign interdisciplinary work. While I understand that this is not a view shared by all in academia, and certainly not by many in industry, the messages we give our students about what "counts" as engineering or physics matter deeply, especially as they develop professional identities as engineers or scientists. Moreover, research at the intersection of multiple disciplines may be particularly attractive for underrepresented minorities and women whose professional identities are more frequently challenged by others. We need to communicate to all students that the ability to work across disciplines is valuable and important.

Professional identity

Student branches of professional membership societies, such as SPIE, can help students create connections with peers, faculty, and industry professionals. When I was a PhD student, our school's student-run optics organization was a valuable way for me to strengthen my own identity in photonics.

Social responsibility

These topics are not often discussed in photonics education, at least not in my experience. And yet, as we look to technology to address some of humankind's most pressing problems, we also must seek out responsible and just solutions in our own work. For example, I have in recent years collaborated with an anthropology colleague to explore how we can blend themes from corporate social responsibility into a semiconductor device course. Because of this collaboration, my students get to wrestle with topics such as materials sourcing, labor conditions, equitable access to technology, and the unavoidable tradeoffs involved in creating sociotechnical solutions.

Advances in photonics still excite me as much today as when I first entered the field. With increased attention on how we educate and support students, we can continue to recruit the next generation of photonics professionals, work on exciting breakthroughs, and contribute responsibly to society.

Stephanie Claussen is an assistant professor in the School of Engineering at San Francisco State University.

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