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Bringing holograms and laser light shows to science class

Where the papier-mch volcano and Styrofoam solar system once won first place at science fairs, photonics projects will now reign supreme.

Photonics - the branch of science that deals with generation, manipulation, and transport of light energy - has a hand in everything from laser surgery to holograms to the making of CDs. About 350,000 photonics technicians were employed in the United States in 1994, and the number is expected to exceed 740,000 this year, according to the Center for Occupational Research and Development.

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But that has leaders in industries such as manufacturing, defense, medicine, and telecommunications wondering if enough people will have the skills and interest to fill these jobs in the future. That's where Project PHOTON comes in.

"The goal of the project is to prepare teachers at all educational levels to introduce photonics technology into the classroom, thereby exposing thousands of students to career opportunities...." says project manager Fenna Hanes of the New England Board of Higher Education. The board received a $490,000 grant from the Advanced Technological Education program of the National Science Foundation.

At the middle- and secondary-school levels, Project PHOTON gives teachers additional tools to get kids interested in technology and science in general. In November, 120 educators from Connecticut and Massachusetts will attend introductory workshops.

"The goal of the first workshop is to introduce teachers and career guidance counselors to the field of photonics - what it is, why it's important for students to know something about it - and hopefully get them excited about teaching it," says Judith Donnelly, a physics professor at Three River Community Technological College in Norwich, Conn. She is spearheading this effort, and has helped launch an associate degree in photonic engineering at her college. "We also hope to give them some hands-on experience to use when they get back into the classrooms," she adds.

After the workshops and a competitive application process, 80 of the 120 participants will be chosen to attend a weeklong workshop next summer.

The intention is to foster relationships with schools that will continue to work with photonics education after the initial workshops. "We don't want this to be a one-shot deal," Donnelly says. "We want to build up regional programs that will be self-sustaining."

The workshop will focus on optics, lasers, fiber optics, and all fields of photonics. It will offer educators immersion in basic physics and technology. There will be time to develop curriculum and hands-on labs for different grade levels.

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There's a need to grab the interest of students while they're young, Donnelly says. And she doesn't think that will be difficult.

"There is an awful lot in optics and lasers that kids just find fascinating," she says. "For the younger kids, it is just neat to look at and really cool to make holograms.... Even some of my [college] students find it ... fascinating."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society