Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Summer 2004 Newsletter



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Optics Education – Hands-On Optics and More!

Jason Briggs, Optical Society of America Education Program Manager


The mission of the Optical Society of America (OSA) is to promote the generation, application and archiving of knowledge in optics and photonics and to disseminate this knowledge worldwide. OSA was organized in 1916 to increase and diffuse the knowledge of optics, pure and applied; to promote the common interests of investigators of optical problems, of designers and of users of optical apparatus of all kinds; and to encourage cooperation among them. The purposes of the organization are scientific, technical and educational.

Education Portfolio

The organization’s activities work to raise the level of understanding and awareness about optics in a number of areas:

  • Elementary, secondary and post-secondary education
  • Education policy and public awareness
  • Outreach and academic preparation
  • Professional development

As of September 2003, OSA was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to launch a collaborative optics education program linking the professional optics and the informal education communities to reach under-represented middle school cohorts in science and technology.

The Hands-On Optics (HOO)1 program is a unique informal science program that brings together two professional societies (SPIE - The International Society for Optical Engineering and OSA - Optical Society of America), a mathematics and science education program serving educationally disadvantaged students (MESA - Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement), and a national observatory (NOAO - National Optical Astronomy Observatory) to provide a new model for informal science education activities in optics.

HOO Project Goals

The primary goals of Hands-On Optics are to:

  • Create links from the professional optics community to the informal science education community.
  • Reach underrepresented middle school cohorts in science and technology, and connect with their parents and teachers, school districts and communities.
  • Provide opportunities for the target populations to succeed in collaborative learning and problem solving through inquiry-based, hands-on applications of optical and engineering skills and knowledge.
  • Increase science and technology knowledge for students, and increase awareness of optics as a discipline and career that crosscuts numerous fields.

"We are going to go into those areas where kids don't have access," HOO PI Anthony Johnson explains to Physics Today, "You've been hearing about the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education" -- the 1954 Supreme Court decision to integrate schools -- "and just how separate and unequal it still is. I've been doing this for years, but it's great that we've been able to set up a more formal structure."

Targeting kids before high school is key, Johnson adds. "A few years ago, I was in Detroit and gave a seminar at an inner city high school. Their eyes glazed over. After they hustled out, two young ladies snuck back into the auditorium. They didn't want their peers to know they were interested in the science. It wasn't cool to be smart. Then I gave the same talk at an elementary school. The bright young faces were all excited. That's the difference between high school and elementary school."

Resource Agents

SPIE and OSA are tapping into the thousands of industry, college, and university professionals who make up society membership in the geographic areas where the MESA teacher trainings and program rollout will take place. The societies are recruiting Optics Resource Agents (volunteers) from both individual member rosters and corporate partners. The program’s first Intensive Training Institute for Resource Agents and teachers from Southern California and Washington State will be held July 9-11 at the University of Southern California.

For this summer's Intensive Training Institute, a minimum of 15 volunteers are expected to participate; additional volunteer members will be matched, one per teacher, at each MESA HOO site. Other volunteers will be invited to contribute by participating in Saturday Academies, Industry Shadow Days, career awareness events and on local industry advisory boards.

It is this resource that the societies bring to the program that makes it valuable, to teachers, students and parents. Most societies have engaged their respective memberships in various education or outreach activities. However, the training and support systems provided to the volunteers are based on best practices from the successful NSF-supported program Project ASTRO ( Project ASTRO improves the teaching of astronomy and physical science in 4-9th grade classrooms, and in youth groups, by linking professional and amateur astronomers with local educators.

Training and Development

The July 9-11th 2004 training will be held under the sponsorship of MESA of California with help from the USC Department of Electrical Engineering. This professional development experience will increase the content knowledge of the teachers and will also help the teachers with optics teaching pedagogy. More importantly, it will give the teachers a strong sense of the playful, exploratory atmosphere we are trying to create in the HOO modules. During the workshop, HOO teachers will interact with the three modules in much the same way as the students will.

The optics volunteers will receive training on working in schools and on the nature of science teaching today, including some material on the National Science Education Standards. The volunteers will learn how to effectively interact with students in ways that support HOO educators and will receive a draft copy of the HOO "How To" manual describing a number of different educational situations and giving advice for the volunteer in these situations.

A major goal of the workshop is to develop a respectful and collegial relationship between the volunteer and educator. To achieve this goal, the partners will interact and work together on the modules as well as participate together in the social settings of the workshop. The building of mutual understanding and respect in the educator/volunteer partnership is critical for the long-term success of the project.

MESA_Telescope.jpg (1038688 bytes)

Students assembling a Newtonian reflecting telescope as part of a MESA science competition

Project Outcomes

By leveraging the existing infrastructure at 12 diverse MESA host sites in California and in six other states with successful MESA programs the HOO program will gain a “jump-start” in reaching the target audience. HOO also will reach other students by disseminating the project to science-technology centers, other informal learning environments and service providers and through both optics societies’ many volunteer outreach programs nationwide.

Access to optics will be created for tens of thousands of students by the end of program year 3 (now in year 1), of which over 80% of the students will be from traditionally underserved groups in science and engineering. Also by year 3, alliance formation and sustainability among the stakeholders, education institutions and optics and optics-related companies will be strengthened to promote ongoing joint action in informal optics science education.

If you are interested in learning more about the HOO program, the Web site ( affiliated with the program is due to launch by the end of August 2004. Please also feel free to contact Jason Briggs (OSA Education Program Manager) at


1.   This material is based upon work supported by The National Science Foundation under Grant No. ESI-0307949



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