SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION: Optics education outreach in Chile

June 24, 2011
Spotlight on inspiring the next generation of scientists and business leaders.


It is impressive and inspiring to see university students in the optics field devote their time and effort to sharing their knowledge with colleagues and young students. Although busy with their own studies and responsibilities, these special individuals place a priority on outreach activities that build professional relationships and encourage youngsters’ curiosity in science and math.

A great example is the Student Optics Chapter (SOCk) at the University of Arizona (UA). This group designed Optical Outreach Abroad (OOA), a program that presents technical information and demonstrations in an interesting and entertaining way to a broad spectrum of viewers.

In March 2011, the four UA students journeyed to Chile for the OOA’s inaugural project. The students presented a four-day, graduate-level astronomical optics workshop tailored to the Chilean academic and professional optics community, hosted by the Center for Astro-Engineering (AIUC) of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC). They also gave a series of outreach demonstrations at four Santiago high schools that reached 120 11th and 12th grade students. In addition, the OOA team had the opportunity to visit the Very Large Telescope (VLT) Observatory, which houses one of the world’s most advanced and largest optical telescopes, and to explore Santiago and surrounding areas.

“The emphasis of the program was on the application and implementation of optics, rather than on its theoretical background,” explained Eduardo Bendek, OOA creator, project manager and workshop chair. “We selected Chile as the first country for our project because it has the largest concentration of optical and radio astronomical telescopes in the world, thanks to the unique pristine skies of the Atacama Desert. The country is also very well suited for the development of solar energy, which makes an excellent argument to support the development of an optics industry.”

The Astronomical Optics Workshop provided a broad summary of optics concepts and their application for astronomical telescopes. The goal was to deliver material that would be useful for graduate students working on the design of instruments and for observatory engineers working in assembly, commission, and troubleshooting of optical systems. Each day’s curriculum focused on a different topic: Geometrical Optics and Aberrations; Aberrations and Optical Design; Opto-Mechanics; and Diffraction. Attendees included 13 graduate students, four postdocs, one professor, and nine engineers from diverse institutions. All members of the OOA team participated in the teaching activities.

The high school outreach program was designed to encourage interest in the sciences and optics among young people. The OOA team selected schools in different areas of Santiago to experience the range of schools in the Chilean education system and to serve a wide socio-economic range of the population. Participating schools were the International School Nido de Aguilas, a private, high-end school for international students; Santiago College, a private, traditional institution; Liceo Amanda Labarca, a public school focused on excellence in education; and Colegio La Mision, a private, rural school. Activities at each school included 11 experiments showing manifestations of light in daily life. The topics were: Spectrum of Light Sources; Displays, Pixels and Colors; 3D Displays; Reflection Holograms; Diffraction: Measuring Small Dimensions; Polarization; Optical Free Space Communications; Galilean Telescope, GMT Video and 3D Picture; Diffraction Imaging Tube; and Laser Graffiti.

To increase the project’s impact, each student received a kit with two polarizers, a pair of diffraction glasses, a pair of red-cyan 3D glasses, and a pixel magnifier. In addition, each high school was given a Galileoscope with tripod, a “Communication with Light” kit, and several laser pointers. “We provided the teachers and students with the kits and other materials because we felt it was very important for them to be able to continue the demonstrations and the exploration of the properties of light after our visit ended,” said Bendek.

The OOA project received significant coverage in the Chilean media. The program was featured on the Chilean Canal 13 News channel, in the El Mercurio newspaper, and on several websites. Pictures and videos produced during the trip have been posted on You Tube.

In addition to Bendek, the OOA team members were Wenrui Cai, Optical Tolerancing and Lens Design Instructor; Blake Coughenour, Opto-Mechanics Instructor; and Anael Guilmo, Diffraction Instructor. All are Ph.D. candidates at the UA College of Optical Sciences.

The project was funded by the OSA Foundation (OSAF), The Center for Integrated Access Network (CIAN), the UA College of Optical Sciences and its Student Optics Chapter, the Center for Astro-Engineering at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and the Arizona Optics Industry Association.

The OSA Foundation (OSAF) was established in 2002 to support philanthropic activities that help further the Optical Society's (OSA) mission by concentrating its efforts on programs that advance youth science education, provide optics and photonics education to underserved populations, provide career and professional development resources and support awards & honors that recognize technical and business excellence. The grants funded by the OSA Foundation are made possible by the generous donations of its supporters, as well as the dollar-for-dollar match from OSA. For more information, visit

GRACE KLONOSKI is the Senior Director, Foundation, Membership & Education Services for the Optical Society of America, 2010 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20036; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site:

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Laser Focus World, create an account today!