Active Learning in Optics and Photonics

Looking back at 12 years of ALOP.

01 July 2016
Joseph J. Niemela

Creativity is well understood to be one of the essential characteristics for artists, but it is equally important for scientists. So that raises the following question:

How do you keep the brightest and most creative students interested in pursuing a career in physics as they enter the university and at the same time impart real conceptual understanding so that they have a proper “canvas” on which to start their work throughout those careers?

That was a question discussed nearly 13 years ago by representatives of UNESCO, SPIE, and the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) at a meeting in Trieste hosted by the late Gallieno Denardo. The participants noted that light science is an ideal subject to stimulate interest in science, technology, education, and math (STEM) subjects in the classroom.

The answer from that meeting was to develop a “training the trainer” program called Active Learning in Optics and Photonics (ALOP). Along with a full manual and teacher’s guide, the program would help instructors in developing countries engage their students more effectively.

It wasn’t a fix for the often low salaries of teaching professionals compared to those offered elsewhere, but it was important not to give students added incentives to leave physics.

Since Denardo had no intention of leaving Trieste to spread this message around the world, he quickly passed this idea on to me. He suggested that I take his place in a 2004 meeting in Manila with Minella Alarcon, the UNESCO science and math program specialist and original ALOP director, as well as some of the team members who would be there to try things out.

I’m very grateful to him for that suggestion, as working with the ALOP team resulted in new and wonderful friendships and connections I don’t think I would have had otherwise. It was also my first introduction to the optics community, a community that I have enjoyed working with immensely ever since.


In Manila with Minella (that trips me up even today), one thing became obvious: The cost-to-impact ratio of using optics and photonics was relatively small, and most of the necessary equipment could be obtained or built in even the poorest countries.

No optical rails? Metersticks and putty work in most cases for the classroom. Low-cost equipment actually has an advantage of sorts: it avoids “black box” solutions and demonstrates to students how easy it can be in certain cases to coax quantitative information from nature.

This is not an extra “fact” for them to absorb, but a belief that can stick with them. ALOP is very adaptable to local conditions and so remains relevant across different cultures. To date, the ALOP Training Manual has been translated into French, Spanish, and Arabic.


Part of the strategy that led to ALOP’s success is its encouragement of students to construct the knowledge from their own observations, guided by a “facilitator” rather than a “teacher,” whose role is to lead them from observation to discovery. This process, known as active- or inquiry-based learning, keeps students engaged, which means that they are using their brains in the classroom, not waiting to switch them on the day before an exam. We often refer to ALOP and similar programs as being both “hands on” and “minds on.”

The biggest problem we have with training teachers in this method is to get them to stop lecturing! That is an attribute for which they have a special propensity, and part of the training is to “untrain” them from doing what comes naturally.

Another reason that ALOP is so successful is that some reasonable fraction of teachers — especially in secondary schools — are teaching outside their area of competence for a variety of reasons. ALOP workshops can give them an understanding of light sciences that they perhaps never properly obtained. That in itself can be a great help to their students.

Instructors learn the basics of wave propagation and long-distance communications at a recent ALOP workshop at the National Centre for Physics in Islamabad, Pakistan.

How do you measure if the students’ minds are really engaged? Simple. You just need to buy a decibel meter (the kind the city government used to employ when our band played in public … back when it still made sense to have a comb in my back pocket) and look for a high signal. That means they are actively learning and engaged and not daydreaming about something or someone more interesting while a teacher is lecturing. Plenty of time to do that in history class.

Of course, there is also a test based on results from physics education research to gauge how well they (and hence we) do.


Twelve years later, ALOP workshops have reached more than 1000 teachers from roughly 50 developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They are typically lecturers in universities as well as some secondary school teachers of physics.

Follow-up activities, in which trained trainers train others locally, are an important part of the overall strategy and have been very successful in a number of regions around the world.

Wavelength division multiplexing module at the ALOP workshop in Pakistan. All circuits were locally produced.

The program has enjoyed success because of the major support from SPIE, along with contributions from the UNESCO International Basic Sciences Program and ICTP. It has also benefitted along the way from additional support from the Optical Society, the US National Academies of Science, Essilor Corp., the International Commission for Optics, and the European Physical Society, among others.

ALOP was one of the global outreach activities for the International Year of Light in 2015, with workshops taking place in Indonesia, Mauritius, Mexico, South Africa, Bolivia, and Pakistan, the latter being home to one of the most courageous advocates ever for the right of girls to an education, Malala Yousafzai, who received a half share of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.

This year, ALOP workshops have been held in Panama and Nigeria, a place where girls’ education is being threatened continually by militant groups in the north of the country, and we will soon be in Namibia.

In addition, ALOP will provide local, follow-up workshops in all parts of the world. The ALOP facilitator team is always ready to provide assistance.

SPIE members Joseph Niemela (left) along with SPIE Fellows Vasudevan Lakshminarayanan (center) and Zohra Ben-Lakhdar (right) show the 2011 SPIE Educator of the Year Award certifi cates they received. Other ALOP team members who shared the 2011 award were David Sokoloff , Alex Mazzolini, Ivan Culaba, Joel Maquiling, and SPIE member Minella Alarcon.
Courtesy ICTP Photo Archives

No matter where we are in the world, it is a real treat to work with enthusiastic teachers and optics researchers and to see their dedication. We always leave with a renewed enthusiasm and dedication ourselves!

EDITOR'S NOTE: A version of this article previously appeared on the IYL blog.

Joseph Niemela, Abdus Salam ICTP (Italy)–SPIE member Joseph J. Niemela directs the ALOP program with Jean-Paul Ngome Abiaga at UNESCO. He is a senior scientist and program specialist at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Italy where he heads its Office of External Activities as well as the Applied Physics group. He also coordinated the 2015 International Year of Light (IYL) Global Secretariat, hosted at the ICTP. Niemela will present a report about the ALOP program at SPIE Optics + Photonics Wednesday 31 August.

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