SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION: Hands-on demonstrations--a great way to capture the attention and imagination of students

May 14, 2007
The "Optics Suitcase," developed by the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester, is an interactive learning package designed for middle-school students.

Science & Technology Education
Spotlight on inspiring the next generation of scientists & business leaders


Education experts stress the value to tying lesson material to "real-life" applications, as students are eager to understand why the information they are learning is important and how it is relevant to the world around them. This is yet another reason why optics is such a great topic to bring into the classroom. In addition to being an important and interesting part of science teaching, optics applications are so pervasive it is easy to demonstrate the role they play in a student's everyday life.

Optics also provides many opportunities for interactive exercises--one of the best ways students can connect with the material they are learning. A great variety of "hands-on demonstration" resources have been developed to help bring optics education to young students. Some of the best examples were created by university and business professionals who understand the importance of capturing the interest and imagination of children before they write science and math off as boring or too hard to understand.

Stephen D. Jacobs and his colleagues and students at the University of Rochester, N.Y., are outstanding examples of how volunteers can provide a vital link between students and those in the science and engineering communities.

Stephen D. Jacobs received his B.S. in optics (with high distinction) in 1970, and his Ph.D. in optics in 1976, both from the University of Rochester. He has worked at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) his entire career, becoming a senior scientist in 1982. He manages the Department of Optical Technology within the Engineering Division. This department consists of more than 35 scientists, engineers, and technicians doing basic materials research, advanced development, process development, and optics manufacturing. Areas of responsibility in support of the OMEGA and OMEGA EP laser systems include precision optics from the infrared through the ultraviolet, high-power dielectric/sol-gel coatings, laser-induced damage, and liquid-crystal optics.

In 1999, Steve and others from the University of Rochester developed the "Optics Suitcase" program as part of the Rochester Section of the Optical Society of America's education outreach effort. The Suitcase is an innovative, interactive presentation package designed to introduce middle-school students to a variety of science concepts. Its contents provide students with packets of materials that can be taken home to show to friends and family members as a reinforcement of the classroom lessons. The objective is to provide engineering professionals with demonstration and teaching guide tools that they can bring into classrooms as they educate students about optical technology and the many job opportunities it has to offer.

The materials provide classroom volunteers with a 40-minute presentation that covers topics such as polarization, diffraction, selective reflection, and colors in white light. Also provided is a 12-page User's Guide that gives step-by-step assistance to volunteers in organizing their in-class presentation.

Ninety-eight Optics Suitcases have been distributed to schools and organizations around the world. SPIE and OSA enthusiastically support this program and have highlighted it in their member news publications and on their Web sites. In support of its work with the Retired Scientists, Engineers, and Technicians (ReSET), the OSA Foundation provides suitcases to classroom volunteers in the greater Washington, D.C., area.

To learn more about the Optics Suitcase, view the Suitcase Teaching Guide, and read articles about outreach programs that have successfully used these materials, visit .

Grace Klonoski is the senior director of OSA Foundation and Member & Education Services for the Optical Society of America, 2010 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; e-mail [email protected];

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