San Diego, Aug. 14, 2012 -- About once a month, Janelle Shane, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, San Diego, travels with a partner to high schools in Chula Vista to teach optics.
At the schools, Shane and her fellow graduate students present hands-on optics demonstrations and lessons to up to 150 students per day. “We have one [demonstration] that illustrates how you can communicate with light,” she explains, “where you can send sound on a laser pointer to a speaker.”
This demo and others fit into an “outreach backpack” that volunteers bring to the schools. “Some of this I’ve added myself,” Shane explains. “Like these 3D glasses I discovered one day… I found them and I thought, ‘This is cool – how does this work?’” Shane now teaches the principles behind the glasses to her students.
The outreach program in the Sweetwater Union High School District is one of several initiatives organized by the Center for Integrated Access Networks (CIAN). CIAN is a multi-institutional research effort funded by the National Science Foundation to transform optical access networks. It is a partnership of the University of Arizona, University of Southern California, Caltech, Columbia University, Norfolk State University, Tuskegee University, UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego.
At UC San Diego, CIAN’s educational outreach programs are exposing teachers and students to the excitement of optics, photonics and engineering. In addition to grad students teaching the basics in Sweetwater classrooms, CIAN stages three other outreach programs: Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), Research Experiences for Teachers (RET), and the newly-minted Optics Kits for Science Teachers Workshop. On the UCSD campus, CIAN is based in the Jacobs School of Engineering's Electrical and Computer Engineering department, and the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), both of which participate in the outreach programs.
Research Experiences for Undergraduates
This summer CIAN selected seven undergraduates from around the country to participate in eight-week, funded optics internships at UC San Diego.
As an undergraduate, Grant gets to work alongside faculty to measure this light propagation. “We have two lasers, and we send them through this chip that we have,” explains Grant about her experimental setup. “I take the pictures and the data readouts, and I try to get it so that the pictures have as much of an energy range as the data readouts. This is as opposed to getting one read-out at the end and not knowing what’s going on quantitatively.”
Everyone in the REU program is doing research, and everyone is expected to have some measure of success, even within eight weeks. As one faculty advisor pointed out, “that creates a mini-community of people and support that I think helps the undergraduates a lot.”
Research Experiences for Teachers
In addition to giving college students the full laboratory experience, CIAN hosts a six-week summer workshop for San Diego middle- and high-school teachers. In the RET program, teachers learn new ways to transmit basic optics principles to children of various ages in an open, flexible setting.
This summer two local high-school teachers were awarded RET internships with CIAN, and they are experimenting with new tools to design novel optics and math lesson plans, props and demonstrations.
“Learning by doing is the biggest appeal of this program for me,” says San Diego high school teacher Richard Oka. “In the program, I’m constantly coming up with more engaging ways to lead a lesson.”
Example: They are developing poly-dimethyl-siloxane, or PDMS, for use in making transparent solid models or classroom props. These models can be used to demonstrate everything from mathematical principles to optics and even acoustics. PDMS is a non-toxic, silicone-based organic polymer that can be cured and solidified to make three-dimensional models with interesting physical, optical and adhesive properties.
Billie Greenhalgh, who has taught algebra at High Tech High in Chula Vista for two years, is using the conical top of a plastic soda bottle as a mold for PDMS. Each conic section is molded in a different color so that it is easy to see the features of each shape: the circle, parabola, hyperbola, and ellipse.
“Students will have an understanding of how conic sections work before they ever see a single formula, because they have been able to create their own 3D model,” says Greenhalgh. “Students retain this information better than if they had just been taught the equations, had drawn these shapes in 2D, or were shown a model in class.”
Richard Oka takes a different approach. “I want to use what I learned to allow students to visualize mechanical waves,” explains Oka, who is juggling his RET internship with a joint SDSU/UCSD doctoral program in applied mechanics. “I am trying to acoustically activate PDMS and use that to visualize waves coming out of a speaker. Using a combination of optics and wave mechanics, I can produce visuals that respond in time to music.”
While the teachers have the freedom to explore within the program, they also learn from past RETs and graduate students. “We have access to lesson plans from previous years,” says Oka. “Building off of previous work is definitely helpful.”
Optics Kits for Science Teachers
The success of the hands-on RET program over its four-year history led CIAN to develop the first Optics Kits for Science Teachers Workshop, which took place in March 2012 at UC San Diego. During the workshop, previous teachers who went through the RET program shared their experiences and the optics kits they produced.
The workshop was such a success that CIAN plans to run it every year, eventually accommodating as many as 20 teachers.
Doug Ramsey, 858-822-5825, firstname.lastname@example.org