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Active learning inspires new interest in optics

26 Oct 2007

UNESCO's Active Learning in Optics and Photonics project is making the final preparations for its latest workshop to stimulate interest in optics in developing countries. Marie Freebody speaks to Minella Alarcon, programme specialist at UNESCO, to find out more.

Does thinking back to your school days evoke memories of enthusiastic teachers who inspired you to take your studies further? This desire to motivate young students in developing countries is at the heart of UNESCO's Active Learning in Optics and Photonics (ALOP) project.

Now in its fourth year, ALOP aims to introduce teachers in developing countries to "active learning" and enable them to teach optics more effectively. ALOP's last workshop was held in Brazil in July and preparations are now in full swing for the December event in Mexico.

Why was the ALOP project set up?
The United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) initiated the project in November 2003 to generate interest in optics and photonics among students, especially in developing countries.

We think that too few students are interested in physics because of the way it has been taught traditionally. We need to change the way that we teach, not just optics and photonics, but physics in general. This is particularly important for young people in their first or second year at university, or those in their final years of high school.

Under the ALOP project, UNESCO organizes workshops in various developing countries to promote creativity and innovation in the way that introductory physics is taught. What we really offer is a training of trainers. The workshops are designed to encourage teachers in developing countries to adopt a more interactive teaching approach, known as active learning, to generate interest in physics among their students.

What is active learning?
Active learning uses hands-on exercises and experiments in class. Students are encouraged to work in groups where there is a lot of discussion and exchange of ideas. The students really gain knowledge of physics through these activities. With guidance from the teacher acting as a facilitator, they find out the correct answers from the results of the activities and then reach conclusions amongst themselves.

We have designed experiments that use simple equipment and can be easily reproduced. No lectures are involved. The facilitator stands up for a few minutes to give a short explanation, but long and boring lectures are absolutely forbidden. This is an activity-based, discovery approach where the students have the opportunity to learn through exercises and from the results of the experiments.

What are the goals of the project?
We encourage the teachers to carry on practising the hands-on activities by themselves, using our training manual as a guide. We want them to use the method and activities in their own classes and to design their own experiments. This is why we try to use simple materials, so that the teachers can get ideas and possibly make their own materials. We want to ensure that they don't have to spend too much money on equipment.

Our ultimate hope is that the people we've trained will be inspired to organize their own local workshops and to pass on the active learning method.

What do typical workshops involve?
The workshops are usually held in the physics department of a university and cover eight topics. These are an introduction to active learning; geometrical optics; lenses and optics of the eye; interference and diffraction; atmospheric optics; and optics in communication, which is made up of two modules. The final module is called action research with the light and optics conceptual evaluation (LOCE). This LOCE module was developed to measure how much the students have learned. It is important for the workshop participants to take this test so that they know how to use it to do action research and become familiar with the type of questions.

A typical workshop lasts for five days. ALOP organizes around two workshops each year, taught by six facilitators from various countries. Between 30 and 40 teachers are invited to attend from various universities or high schools in the region. We usually divide the participants into 10 activity groups of 3–4 people per group. They are then introduced to active learning and perform the hands-on experiments themselves. The workshop uses a teaching manual as well as simple teaching aids, which are all distributed free of charge at the end of the workshop.

Can you describe a typical experiment used in a workshop?
One of our most popular experiments is using lenses to form images. The lens that we use in this demonstration is a large, round, transparent covered plastic container with water added to it.

We use two small bulbs to show how the lens forms the image. The students don't just draw the rays, they see the rays coming from the bulbs passing through the "lens" in this demonstration. This experiment allows the students to actually see the real image formed, instead of it just being drawn on the board.

Who teaches the workshops?
We prefer to call the teacher a facilitator – they are a facilitator rather than an authority in the classroom. The idea is that they facilitate the activities and direct the discussions. They frame questions so that the students are guided to the correct answer. We currently have six facilitators from universities around the world. They are all volunteers who have generously lent their expertise, time and effort to develop the modules and the materials used in this project.

The facilitators are experts in physics education. They are either involved in optics and photonics research or teaching and they are experienced in the active learning method. They have been chosen because they have a good knowledge of both.

Who attends the workshops?
Most of the participants are university teachers. However, the background of the participants is not always the same and differs from country to country. For example, a recent workshop held in Africa was attended mainly by high-school teachers.

This means that the preparation is not the same for each workshop, but we try to be aware of this situation. On the first day of the workshop we have a "getting to know each other" session to find out the background of the participants and adapt the workshop accordingly.

How do you decide what country to hold a workshop in?
Selecting the country is a difficult decision. ALOP asks the local organizers within the potential host country to meet basic requirements.

The project's first workshop was held in Ghana at the University of Cape Coast in 2004. Since then, workshops have taken place in Tunisia, Morocco, India, Tanzania and Brazil, with one scheduled to take place in Mexico this December. A lot of countries have expressed their interest in hosting a workshop, however, due to the time it takes to prepare for an event, we can only manage about two per year.

Currently, we have five countries asking for workshops in 2008 including Zambia, Nepal, Romania, Cameroon and Colombia. To qualify, they must prepare a venue with access to electricity, tables, chairs and basic laboratory facilities. For example, we require 10 optical benches with lens holders for each of the 10 activity groups.

How is ALOP funded?
The ALOP project is funded by UNESCO that contributes $10,000 per workshop. It also receives contributions from the International Society of Optical Engineering (SPIE), the US National Academy of Science (NAS), the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Essilor and the American Association of Physics Teachers.

Each workshop costs between $30,000 and $35,000, which includes air fares, accommodation, materials and the training manual. Some sponsorship is fixed, for example ALOP receives $20,000 per year from SPIE. Some are not fixed, such as contributions from the US NAS that funds the American facilitators' travel to a workshop.

We ask the local organizers within the host country to assist in raising funds for regional travel and local expenses, such as accommodation and meals for all participants and the facilitators. Usually we have participants attending from nearby countries. For example, at the Brazil workshop we had some participants attend from Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico.

What does the future hold for ALOP?
We are increasingly faced with the challenge of needing to train more regional facilitators. We've already had some follow-up activities – trainees in Morocco and Tunisia have started to organize and lead their own workshops and were so interested that they have initiated translations of the modules into French. This is a good example for other groups to follow.

Following the workshop in Brazil, the participants wanted translations into Spanish and Portuguese so that they could adapt the manual and materials to train their high-school teachers. We are now in the process of translating the training manual into French and, in fact, next year we might deliver one of the workshops in French.

• Minella Alarcon works in the natural sciences sector in UNESCO. ALOP is implemented under the Physics Programme led by Minella Alarcon. For further details on the ALOP project e-mail m.alarcon@unesco.org.

•  This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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