Planting the interest in STEM subjects

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A good mentor is key to increasing appreciation of optics and photonics among school pupils, says Daniela Marin, an engineering student who recently held a workshop for young pupils

At school, I can still remember walking down the long hallway, which had colourful lockers to my left and right. One thing I do not remember is feeling confident about career options or how diverse potential course subjects are. I always had the blurred figure of a male cross my mind when I thought of an engineer, or I thought of my eye doctor when I thought of optics.

Why was I so unaware? Well, coming from the perspective of someone who came from a low-income immigrant household, I can provide some insight. Students who have immigrant parents typically live between two worlds. One world is at school, which consists of learning and interacting with people in English. The transition into the second world begins once the student is at home and all conversations are in their native language. Wait a minute – how is being bilingual a problem? What people don’t realise is that first-generation Americans can’t help their children with homework, career advice, or exposure to opportunities because of the language barrier. As a result, some students navigate through school on their own and may not see the purpose for furthering their studies.

However, at college I was fortunate enough to have been exposed to the eclectic themes associated with optics through my mentor. Here, the idea transformed into an excitement that motivated me to return to my high school to run a workshop of my own. I had the opportunity to explain what optics was, share my research experience, and provide myself as a resource for them. My enthusiasm stemmed from my optics mentor, who taught me more than just the fundamentals of optics. He taught me what research was like, how to find opportunities, and provided advice when I felt unsure. Knowing an intellectual individual believes in you and is helping with the mysteries of life goes a long way. 

Marin's optics workshop saw young students build a Schlieren imaging system and fibre optic snowflakes (shown above). Credit: Daniela Marin

There are so many individuals willing to try something new but lack the confidence to do so. The technique to increase optics awareness is simple: determine the target group; identify how you could benefit them; plant the motivation; foster growth; and watch diverse ideas develop from them. Increasing appreciation for optics and photonics among high school students starts with the development of a mentorship programme capable of providing guidance to those who have limited access to resources. Whether the parents are dealing with a language barrier or simply do not have the time or experience to offer advice, a knowledgeable mentor can provide the seed to grow the passion for optics.