PHOTONICS EDUCATION: Europe lights the way in photonics public outreach

At the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO; Barcelona, Spain), a unique outreach project just finished.

Jan 1st, 2009
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At the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO; Barcelona, Spain), a unique outreach project just finished. Financed by the European Commission (EC) and the German government’s education ministry, the Fascination of Light program brought the excitement of light, photonics, and even a little bit of quantum mechanics to schoolchildren and the general public for nearly two years.

The program was organized to pass through the institutions participating in the EC’s LaserLab Europe and NEMO (Network of Excellence in Micro-Optics) networks. Crowds numbering in the thousands in ten European cities from Dublin to Warsaw viewed the exhibit.

Daniela Stozno of the Max Born Institute (Berlin, Germany) spearheaded the effort. “Our goal is to explain photonics and how it applies to everyday life through exhibits that make complex subjects and technologies understandable to the average person or student,” said Stozno.

What that means is a wealth of crowd-pleasing demonstrations. Schoolchildren visited in groups and started off with a presentation on what light is all about–in 3-D. Then, they entered a giant kaleidoscope, saw the effects of diffraction gratings or how polarized light shows up in everyday situations, and explored the lensing effect that comes from water added to a concave piece of plastic.

Photoelasticity and diffraction

Classics like the radiometer or writing backward in front of a mirror were there, and tougher concepts were on hand too. Light passed through a giant plastic screwdriver showed the principle of photoelasticity, and one exhibit, by the pressing of a number of buttons to activate corresponding slits, showed how diffraction patterns can be changed.

While the exhibition was aimed at and advertised primarily to schools, the event’s organizers in Spain said more than a hundred members of the general public showed up to view the exhibits.

Using a microscope, children examine several samples on a turntable that have been laser microprocessed: a stent, a tooth, porous plastic foil, gummi bears, and a microscopic statue of Venus. (Courtesy of the ICFO)
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“In principle, it was supposed to be appropriate for ages 8 through 17, but I would say that we’ve had people of all ages and they all enjoyed it; in a different way, but they all enjoyed it,” says Alejandra Valencia, of the ICFO’s Quantum Optics group. “Little kids like mirrors, while older ones ask more questions about lasers.”

Teachers returned to the classroom with additional tools to share some of the fundamentals of photonics. An educational kit provided by NEMO included a number of demos including a diffraction grating and a laser. That goes even further to carry on what Daniela Stozno says is the goal of the Fascination of Light project: getting more people involved at a young age in the vast amount of research and development that involves light.

And in Barcelona, it worked. “We’re very happy because we’re getting good feedback,’” says Valencia. “The kids are saying, ‘I thought light was only useful to illuminate rooms; I didn’t know you could do all these things. Then they’re asking, ‘If I would like to work in these kinds of things, what do I have to study?’ The exhibit is reaching its objective.” –Jason Palmer

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