Tapping cyberspace to educate our youth

Aug. 1, 2006
A few years ago, I had a disturbing conversation with my physics professor at San Diego State University (SDSU; San Diego, CA)-he said he was disappointed because, over the years, he was seeing enrollment in physics and the number of graduates “stagnate,” and the basic knowledge of his students was “dismal”-all at a time when population is growing and technology is increasingly prevalent in our daily lives.

Gail Overton

A few years ago, I had a disturbing conversation with my physics professor at San Diego State University (SDSU; San Diego, CA)-he said he was disappointed because, over the years, he was seeing enrollment in physics and the number of graduates “stagnate,” and the basic knowledge of his students was “dismal”-all at a time when population is growing and technology is increasingly prevalent in our daily lives.

Sadly, degree statistics compiled for SDSU at www.university-stats.sdsu.edu show that out of 8046 graduate and undergraduate degrees awarded in 2004-2005, only 15 graduated in physics. Sadder still, this disappointing percentage (0.19%) is even smaller than the 0.29% in 1985-1986 when 16 physics degrees were awarded among 5456 total graduates. Similarly, the portion of graduates in optics within the overall graduating class at the University of Rochester (Rochester, NY) since 1995 has fluctuated between 2.5% and 4.1%, and decreased to 3.5% in the last two years.

These patterns for North America are echoed by the National Science Board (NSB; www.nsf.gov/nsb/), which supervises the collection of a broad set of data trends in science and technology in its Science and Engineering Indicators report. In preparing Indicators 2004, the NSB said, “We have observed a troubling decline in the number of U.S. citizens who are training to become scientists and engineers, whereas the number of jobs requiring science and engineering training continues to grow.”

So how can we steer Americans toward careers in science and optics? Some say we need to figure out why foreign graduate students are more likely than U.S. graduate students to earn degrees in science and engineering, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (nces.ed.gov). Others say that we need to figure out how to make optics and photonics “cool” so that young people are drawn to eventual careers in science. Toward that end, some organizations are effectively using cyberspace-an all-important media for our Internet-savvy youth-to create the lasting impression that science isn’t just for nerds.


Created in 2002 and sponsored by the Optical Society of America (OSA; Washington, D.C.), the www.opticsforkids.org site has games and experiments for children to try, and offers parents and teachers lesson plans and optics activities. A year later, the OSA launched www.opticsforteens.org and has just launched www.hands-on-optics.com, a program that allows teachers to offer extracurricular training for students in optics and photonics.

“Educational outreach has always been important to the OSA,” says Grace Klonoski, senior director of the OSA Foundation and Membership. “The impetus for creating the optics education Web presence was really the result of two events-the launch of the OSA Foundation in 2001 and the explosion of the Internet as a powerful medium to supplement formal education.” The OSA Foundation (www.osa.org/foundation/) supports activities that further OSA’s mission worldwide by advancing youth science education, supporting optics and photonics in developing countries, and providing education and resources to underserved populations. For kids thinking about college, be sure to visit www.opticseducation.org, an international directory of degree programs in optics.


Two of the five mission statements listed on oisc.net, a creation of The Optics Institute of Southern California (OISC; Irvine, CA), are youth-education oriented: bring optics presentations, demonstrations and classroom “hands-on” materials to K-12 students and teachers in southern California; and encourage students to study optics in college and provide them a path to an optics career.

The Web site and the OISC itself is the creation of OISC director Donn Silberman, who started the Optics Institute (a project of Community Partners in Los Angeles, CA, an incubator for nonprofit organizations) in early 2003 to encourage parents, teachers, and industry to get people excited about optics. “There are so many people who think you can teach kids over the Internet,” says Silberman, “but there is no substitute for hands-on learning.” Silberman and a team of volunteers bring optics demonstrations directly into the classroom and the workplace, promoting optics in educational institutions at all levels and at familiar southern-California companies like Raytheon, where he teaches optics to technicians. Be sure to inquire about OISC astronomy and physics classes at the University of California, Irvine Gifted Student Academy and its public outreach programs at the Discovery Science Center (Santa Ana, CA). The OISC Web site also explains the purpose of its “Optricks Suitcase”-an important tool, should you be interested in sharing optics within your community.


Online science-education games can actually be fun. I checked out the sixth-grade-level games here, including “Operation Optics,” which allows you to defend Earth (from ants parachuting out of spaceships that are carrying away houses) with a variety of optical instruments (lenses, mirrors, lasers), and “Optics Workbench,” which teaches about the colors of light and how they are influenced by various optical elements. All activities (kindergarten up to sixth grade) are standards-based, highly interactive, state-of-the-art Web multimedia, including heavy animation, sound, and digitized children’s voices.

“There is nothing better than one-on-one tutoring,” says iknowthat.com president Gary Kiliany. “However, multimedia and online learning experiences are good-offering kids an opportunity to explore multiple subjects, take quizzes on a variety of topics, and even fail in private.” Kiliany says online learning is about enabling students to explore topics further than they might in a graded academic setting. Incredibly, Kiliany reports that 60,000 activities are launched each day on their site. Currently, 350 schools have premium subscriptions to iknowthat.com that provides access to additional online learning tools.


The Physics-2000 Web site offers several interactive Applets that explore modern physics. The Applets offer video-game-like appeal for young children (and older kids) while teaching about quantum physics and wave theory, colors and displays, and lasers.

Started nearly ten years ago by Martin Goldman, professor of physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, with financing from the State of Colorado and the National Science Foundation, the Physics-2000 Web site operates with the philosophy that there is little difference in explaining concepts whether the student is young or old. Goldman adds, “Schoolteachers, professors, and students from around the world have been drawing heavily on the resources in Physics-2000 since its inception in 1998. Teachers can download the entire site (but not fragments) upon request to the Webmaster.”


This companion Web site to the book World Almanac for Kids 2007 (www.wrcmedia.com) focuses on a variety of subjects including animals, the environment, religion, nations, sports, and population-daring kids to “. . . dive in and explore. You might even get smarter.” While optics and photonics are not specific categories, its “Space” and “Inventions” categories offer some great information on astronomy, lasers, and scientists like Thomas Edison and Alfred Nobel.

Additional resources

Once you start looking, the online science educational sites for children are many and growing: visit www.opticalres.com/kidoptx.html, www.physicsclassroom.com, www.fearofphysics.com, and for bigger kids, see my past column on tutorials (www.laserfocusworld.com/articles/229664).

Every other month, associate editor Gail Overton presents her view of what the World Wide Web offers optics and photonics engineers, researchers, and technical professionals. Topics will help readers identify Internet sites that provide links to databases, tutorials, collaboration and technology licensing opportunities, scientific blogs and chat rooms, and other online resources of interest. To share your best Web-site finds with our readers, please contact Gail Overton at [email protected].

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