02 Mar 2015
Engagement with schoolchildren also seen as opportunity to plug the skills gap facing the photonics industry.
by Andrew Williams
As the UN-backed International Year of Light (IYL) moves on from two months of launch events, organizations around the world plan to undertake a wide range of educational and outreach activities to raise awareness of the importance of light and light-based technologies in the everyday life.
In the UK, a number of events are scheduled across the country during the course of the year - many of which are one-off dates organized specifically for IYL, such as the Society of Light and Lighting's Lecture on Fresnel at the Royal Institution on March 10 and the Science Museum Lates evening planned for the end of May.
According to Beth Taylor, Chair of the UK National Committee for IYL 2015, a number of well-established science festivals will also feature light science and technology-based themes this year, including the Cambridge Science Festival in March and dedicated light festivals in York and Durham.
The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has also developed a laser "roadshow". It will be visiting science festivals around the country, starting with the first Northern Ireland Science Festival, which has just taken place. STFC is also hosting public open days at its Harwell campus in July, where local schoolchildren and the general public will be able to tour facilities including Vulcan, one of the world's most powerful lasers, and the Diamond Light Source, the UK's cutting-edge synchrotron facility.
For Taylor, the encouragement of young people into science is of particular relevance for the photonics industry, which she says is very strong in the UK.
"The photonics industry is worth £10.5 billion to the UK economy, employs over 70,000 people and is growing at almost 10 per cent per year. But one of the barriers to further growth is the shortage of highly skilled graduate employees the sector demands,” he pointed out. “If IYL can successfully attract more students to science and engineering careers, it will help to ensure the health of the sector in years to come.”
As part of these efforts, the UK national committee for IYL has developed plans for a range of educational resources, which Taylor says it would like to make available to schools and teachers to ensure that the event continues to have an impact beyond the IYL itself.
Although it is dependent on sponsorship to put these plans into practice, Taylor reveals that the committee is already going ahead with a suite of web-based teaching resources and is actively seeking funding for its flagship project, which aims to distribute a classroom kit of diffraction glasses and worksheets to every secondary school in the UK.
Elsewhere, the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC) has recently entered into a partnership with the Minneapolis-based company Laser Classroom to disseminate an educational "Light, Lasers and Optics outreach" kit to students across Europe.
As Colette DeHarpporte, founder of Laser Classroom, explains, the company had already developed an innovative Laser Blox technology kit for the teaching of optics, photonics and other light-based science subjects.
For the IYL, it created a customized version of the kit - and works with IYL partner organizations, including EPIC and OSA, to make them available to teachers, students and outreach professionals as a "simple, affordable hands on set of tools to teach and learn the fundamental properties of light."
optics.org publisher SPIE is also collaborating with the company to bring both kits and professional development workshops to teachers by attending national science teacher conferences and hosting related events across the US.
The kit itself contains a set of three LED light sources in red, green and blue, and concave, convex and trapezoid frosted lenses, as well as a diffraction grating and two "unbreakable" mirrors to help in teaching a range of basic optical concepts - including reflection, refraction, color, shadows, lenses and basic geometric optics. The company has also created a library of free lessons and activities that are available to students and teachers and developed a free guide for outreach professionals.
"We are honored and excited that the IYL2015 Education Committee choose the Laser Classroom Light Blox kit as the featured kit for IYL2015. Reaching students, parents and teachers is key to raising awareness of light and light based technologies – and we believe this kit is a great resource for that," said DeHarpporte.
"Outreach is powerful. Seeing a real scientist in the K-12 (i.e. secondary) classroom is motivating and inspiring. This kit makes it easy for professionals who want to share their love of light with kids, schools and teachers in their own communities," she added.
Looking ahead, DeHarpporte hopes that the momentum achieved by the 'launch' of IYL2015 will be sustained and help to stimulate a "long lasting commitment to raising awareness and sharing about light and photonics".
"I'd love to see light as a topic in every classroom. I’d like to see all K-6 (i.e. primary) teachers comfortable with introducing students to the basics of light. I'd [also] love to see every light, lasers, optics and photonics professional in industry, academia and research involved with outreach at some level. We are also working on our next kit which involves using light for communication," she said.
Taylor agrees that the IYL brings together the widest possible range of scientific and cultural interests, and creates a "unique opportunity to capture the imagination and enthuse young people with the excitement of science and engineering".
"There is also a great opportunity to use light and light-based technologies to highlight the benefits of science and technology to our economy and society, through the sheer variety of their applications from astronomy to telecommunications to medicine, and the way in which they have revolutionized our world," she told optics.org.
Taylor hopes to see the various strands of the photonics industry supporting educational and outreach activities to attract young people into science, through the crossover with arts and culture, and through demonstrating the impact of light-based technologies on our quality of life.
"In the end, this is just enlightened self-interest," she pointed out. "A few years down the road these industries will be looking to employ just the kind of bright young teenagers who are making long-term career choices today."
About the Author
Andrew Williams is a freelance journalist based in Cardiff, UK.