Magazine article Techniques

Light Learning

Magazine article Techniques

Light Learning

Article excerpt

One of the most exciting things about career and technical education (CTE) is the way new technology-and a need for qualified people in the workplace to use the technology-- shows up quickly in the classroom. Responding to an industry requirement for workers who know photonics-the transmission of information through light-several breakthrough programs are now offering young people a path to this bright future.

Invisible Technology

Photonics is the study, research and development of equipment and concepts used in the transmission of information through light, including fiber optics and experimental laser technologies.

Optics, the use of glass and high-- tech materials to create lenses to filter light and transform images, is an

important part of the photonics industry. In a high-tech communications system, for example, photonics would be the lasers, optics, fiber-optic cable, switches and computers that interpret, alter and move light signals. Optics is a small part of that whole.

A recent study by the National Academies of Science and Engineering points to the expected growth explosion in the fields of optics and photonics. The study, entitled "Harnessing Light, Optical Science and Engineering for the Twenty-First Century," predicts that photonics will be the next major technology to drive the economy and dramatically improve our quality of life.

Optics is pervasive, having an impact on the fields of biomedicine, information technology, defense, manufacturing, energy and the environment, as well as supporting educational research activities, according to the report.

Not surprisingly, there is a national shortage of Laser Electro-Optical Technicians (LEOTs) in the manufacturing industry today. It is estimated that there will be a shortfall of more than 25,000 technicians by the year 2005 in the photonics field alone.

Many believe that the new supply of photonics experts will be taught not just in the college and community college programs, but must be nurtured beginning at the secondary level. Programs in Missouri, New Mexico and northern California are opening the world of optics to high school students-in exciting and innovative ways.

Taking the Lead

According to Pearl John, laser instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center (CACC) in Columbia, Missouri, the fact that the technology of lasers and fiber optics is largely invisible to the public has led to some difficulty for the photonics industry in attracting promising students and their parents.

Unlike old radio and television sets that once enticed the curious to take off the back and look inside, the size and integration of photonic components places the technology beyond the tinkering of young people.

A hands-on approach to teaching the subject, then, is designed to spark the creativity and motivation of the high school student, says John. She is an integral part of the first high school program in the country-as well as the only three-year program of its kind-- teaching students about photonics.

Because of the uniqueness of the program, John and her colleague Rick Shanks, also a photonics instructor at CACC, presented a paper on the effort to the International Society for Optics Engineering in Singapore last November. In "Photonics Classes in High School," they detailed the pros and cons of having a high school photonics program.

The most successful aspects of the CACC program are the use of problem-based learning (PBL) techniques, working with student projects, a faculty team approach, a strong advisory committee, support from industry, an emphasis on safety and community outreach.

PBL is an innovative educational approach being used to encourage independent research, teamwork and greater student motivation through the solving of real-world problems. The photonics program uses this approach to develop problem-solving skills and increase student motivation. …

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