SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION: Posters and lesson plans bring optics to the classroom

Dec. 21, 2007
The OSA's Optical Phenomena Poster Series sparks discussion in classrooms around the globe.

Science & Technology Education
Spotlight on inspiring the next generation of scientists and business leaders


"Did you know the word LASER is an acronym?" "Have you ever seen light traveling through the inside of a flower?" "Did you know that light can be used to detect disease?" "Have you ever noticed the colors reflected off a simple soap bubble?"

Using this group of questions to grab the attention of students, parents and educators, the Optical Society of America [OSA] has launched its newest educational outreach tool: the Optical Phenomena Poster Series, a group of four educational posters and supplemental pamphlets created to pique the interest of middle school through college-age students in physics utilizing the principles of optics.

Each poster highlights a different field in optics: laser science, fiber optics, biomedical optics and spectroscopy. The accompanying pamphlets feature easy-to-implement experiments, definitions of scientific terms, career profiles, and additional resources directly related to the poster images.

The Laser Science Pamphlet invites students to imagine a light beam as powerful as all the electric power plants in the world put together, focused into a beam the diameter of a pin, but for just a few millionths of a millionth of a second. Students are asked to consider, "What would it do? How would you produce such a light beam?" The pamphlet then offers a simplistic description of how a laser is made and the enegy required.

The Fiber Optics Pamphlet illustrates how researchers can use this technology to examine minuscule details of a flower and learn more about its structure and physical properties. It explains that fibers also can be used to carry information in much the same way a copper wire can transmit electricity. But while copper transmits only a few million electrical pulses per second, an optical fiber can carry as many as 20 billion light pulses per second. This means phone, cable and computer companies can handle huge amounts of data transfers at one time, many more than conventional wires can carry.

The Biomedical Optics Pamphlet highlights the work that scientists, engineers and doctors around the world are doing to develop the next generation of devices that will allow physicians and medical researchers to understand, detect and treat human diseases in a painless and noninvasive way. One example is an imaging method that allows for a highly detailed examination of the structure and characteristics of red blood cells. Similar approaches allow doctors to detect tiny changes that occur when diseases such as cancer or atherosclerosis (heart disease) are forming, without the need to perform a biopsy and without any side-effects.

The Spectroscopy Pamphlet uses the image of light waves bouncing off a film of liquid soap to explain how light waves travel through substances and interact with one another to produce color. By understanding this phenomenon, scientists are able to measure even the smallest differences in thickness. "How small?" the pamphlet asks. "Think about this. If you could split a hair from your head (100 micrometers) into five thousand different slices (20 nanometers), the colors reflected would allow scientists to determine the differences in slices down to one ten-thousandth (100 nanometers) of a millimeter."

"Educational outreach is one the most important and significant ways OSA supports local communities and inspires tomorrow's young scientists," said Elizabeth Rogan, OSA executive director. "We'd love to see these posters displayed in classrooms, laboratories and school hallways around the globe as a means of exciting and educating students about physics and the science of optics. We hope that the availability of these materials will encourage teachers to include an exploration of light as part of the physics curriculum."

More than 15,000 posters have been distributed to students and educators in eight countries and OSA is making them available at no cost upon request. To receive copies of the posters, contact OSA at [email protected]. The pamphlets are available for download from the Education Section of the OSA website.

The poster series was created by the Education Subcommittee of the OSA Membership and Education Services Council (MES). Members of the MES Council considered 12 images from the Optics and Photonics News (OPN) AfterImage Library before selecting the final four. Education Subcommittee volunteers then drafted the text for the posters and pamphlets. Assistance and support for the project was received from the American Association of Physics Teachers, the National Center for Optics and Photonics Education, and the William F. and Edith R. Meggers Project Award of the American Institute of Physics.

Plans for the next poster series are already under way. An image submission process will begin in October 2008. OSA plans to launch the next series in September 2009.

GRACE KLONOSKI is the senior director of Foundation and the Member & Education Services for the Optical Society of America, 2010 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20036; e-mail: [email protected];

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