Students need contact with high-tech professionals

I read Laser Focus World to learn about new technology and applications in the photonics sector, and to gain an understanding of how these advances will affect the future.

Nov 1st, 2006
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I read Laser Focus World to learn about new technology and applications in the photonics sector, and to gain an understanding of how these advances will affect the future. It is particularly interesting to watch how this progress makes its way into consumer products. From “smart cameras” to multipurpose cell phones with user manuals the size of dictionaries, consumers must continually adapt to increasingly sophisticated products if they are to keep pace. Exciting times, but expensive and exhausting as well!

Children are often the first to fearlessly embrace innovation. This is, of course a good thing-students of today must cover more ground than the generations before them, and technology greatly enables the learning process. We all have a vested interest in the success of these kids, as we rely on them to be the innovators and leaders of tomorrow.

It is fascinating to watch the ways in which the education system is harnessing technology. I experienced this first-hand during my years as a tutor and literacy volunteer; I found that one of the most effective ways students connected with the written word was through the interactivity of the Internet and use of online teaching resources. It is enormously exciting to assist people with limited reading skills and self-confidence to understand that the Web makes it possible to access a world of information on their terms. Books can do that too, but for many learners, the back and forth of Web searches and the excitement of landing on new sites are far more effective. They learn to read and navigate the Web simultaneously, and curiosity fuels their progress.

Thanks to these relatively new tools, I was teaching in a way that was very unlike how I was taught, and it was easy to see how much more efficient the process had become. It is critically important for science and business professionals to take note of this phenomenon because it is very likely that the young engineers and technicians you hire today learn and communicate in ways that differ greatly from your personal experience. Expect them to even move differently. A physics professor I know noted that his students use both hands when operating their calculators, much the same way they would work the controls of a video game. If we look one or two generations beyond, the gulf is sure to become much larger.

A balanced approach

I am a huge fan of technology-based learning, but even an enthusiast like me recognizes the need for a balanced approach. No matter how advanced the tools may be, they cannot replace the human energy and imagination that makes a student absorb and apply knowledge. And while “distance learning” is a popular alternative to the classroom, and online access has made trips to the library less necessary, there is still a need for great teachers and lively interaction among students. And here is where the scientists, engineers, and technologists of today can really help.

Now more than ever, our students are in need of contact with professionals who are willing to volunteer their time and expertise in classrooms and through extracurricular programs. There has never been a more exciting time to enter the science, engineering, and math fields, yet very few children are motivated to pursue math and science careers. Part of the reason is that these subjects have not been presented in a way that captures their imagination and inspires them to learn more.

In some cases the corporate world is beginning to appreciate its role in cultivating students. It is becoming more popular for employers to have organized programs that enable staff to participate in teaching and tutoring activities. Not only do these programs help teachers who are often overwhelmed by the breadth of material to be covered, they can also help to motivate students. Inevitably, the volunteers learn the most as they unplug from their day-to-day lives and enter a new environment filled with young people who are wired in a completely different way. Understanding today’s students also helps these professionals to be better communicators and managers.

There are many resources for technology companies that would like to establish a volunteer program for their staff, or for individuals who want to get involved. Often, these programs include training modules that prepare volunteers for working with kids. Professional societies can be very helpful in providing education outreach opportunities. Many of these nonprofits directly sponsor programs; others support the education activities of local sections or grass-roots organizations. Please feel free to contact me if you would like assistance in finding a program in your area.

It is understandable why more people in the optics and photonics community do not become involved in these sorts of volunteer activities. The pace and quantity of work keeps growing. That being said, the field will suffer if your time and talents are not shared. Reaching out and helping even once or twice a year can really make a difference-you may even inspire the next great optoelectronics innovator. As Winston Churchill said, “You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give.”

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GRACE KLONOSKI is senior director of OSA Foundation Membership & Education, 2010 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.1023; e-mail: gklono@osa.org; www.osa.org.

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