NSF funds photonics workforce development study at RIT

Researchers at Rochester Institute of Technology are using a $400,000 grant from the NSF for a 3-year workplace study of skills.

Researchers at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT; Rochester, NY) are using a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a 3-year workplace study of skills that prepare students for photonics and optics jobs. The team is comparing the physics, math and communication skills that employees arrive with to what they learn on the job and what training their employers offer.

The RIT team is conducting more than 100 onsite interviews with technicians (employees with high school diplomas, certificates, or AS degrees), engineers, and researchers (employees with BS to PhD degrees), and direct supervisors and human resource personnel. This Photonics and Optics Workforce Education Research project identifies different math, physics, and communication skills used on the job at the more than 60 small- to mid-sized photonics companies in the Rochester area.

“If we can find common trends, then arguably we could prepare students better for these careers without giving up the core curriculum,” said Ben Zwickl, assistant professor in RIT's School of Physics and Astronomy. “A lot of times STEM jobs get lumped together. The reality is that there is a huge diversity among STEM jobs.”

Project leaders Zwickl and Kelly Norris Martin, assistant professor in the School of Communication at RIT, are members of RIT’s CASTLE, or Center for Advancing Science/Mathematics Teaching and Evaluation. Martin is exploring how communication is specifically used in academia and in the workplace. This study investigates the type of communication—-such as talking to colleagues, writing reports, and making presentations—-as well as the extent of that particular type of communication.

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Additional interviews with graduate students and faculty advisors at local universities will provide skill comparisons between academic and industrial domains. The researchers hope in the second phase to shadow employees on the job.

The RIT team is also collaborating with the workforce development efforts of the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics (AIM Photonics) initiative, including University of California Santa Barbara’s Center for Science and Engineering Partnerships, to design surveys on future workforce needs based on its early findings.

Source: Rochester Institute of Technology

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