The search for new blood

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Is the industry doing all it can to attract young people into a career in photonics? Warren Clark investigates

During the Executive Panel discussion at Photonics West in January, there was a lively debate about recruitment, and more specifically, about from where the next batch of optical engineers would emerge. There are a number of interesting initiatives around the world, each of which aims to bring industry and academia together to generate interest in photonics, and present it as a genuine career opportunity for budding scientists.

The Photonics Academy, Wales, UK

The Photonics Academy at OpTIC-Glyndwr, in north Wales, UK, leads the way in promoting photonics in schools. Led by Ray Davies, a former physics teacher, the Photonics Academy is seeking to underline the importance of photonics in everyday life, and highlight photonics as an essential component of all school education – even at primary school level. The development of the Photonics Academy is a direct consequence of an earlier educational initiative, first proposed by Professor Alan Shore of the School of Electronic Engineering at Bangor University in 2005, for a photonics academy in Wales.

‘Most primary schools have plenty of modern technology in the classroom, such as laptops, interactive white boards, CD players and maybe even LED classroom lighting systems, all of which use photonics technology in some form,’ says Davies. ‘Yet the teaching of science is still often based on 18th century concepts. Photonics is the technology of the 21st century, and it is wise to introduce such technological opportunities into schools at an early age as is possible.’

Davies is working with Jane Jepson on a primary school educational initiative launched into schools throughout Wales, called The Magical Home. ‘This is all about photonics and opto-electronics,’ says Davies. ‘We encourage the children to imagine, and then to design, the home of the future, and how it might incorporate photovoltaic technology. We look at how this Magical Home could be achieved via the use of photonics, and it involves the unique consideration of the recycling of light. The limitless imagination of children has produced, so far, some amazingly imaginative designs for this project. Above all, the students are excited by the design opportunities they face – of proposing changes for the environment, and for the way they live at home.’

The extent of the Photonics Academy’s work includes a recent master-class on the teaching of photonics, attended by north Wales primary school teachers. ‘They left the day inspired with ideas about how they could take photonics back to their classrooms,’ says Davies. ‘They were bubbling over with renewed enthusiasm.’ Davies and Jepson have since held a similar day for secondary school teachers, with both events being supported and sponsored by Careers Wales and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The Photonics Academy also engages with sixth-form students, working with them on prototype designs using low power lasers to create new photonics inventions. Recently, a proposal syllabus for a foundation degree in photonics has been designed by the Photonics Academy, and this proposal may well lead eventually, and perhaps even directly, to potential MSc opportunities.

‘Our approach to teaching photonics very much involves “hands-on” techniques,’ says Davies. 'Rather than tell people what can be achieved in photonics, we demonstrate and show them how they might achieve their own new designs personally for novel photonics applications. All students are able to generate highly innovative outcomes from their own imaginative and creative potential ideas. We have two thematic principles that form the foundations of everything we attempt here in the Photonics Academy. The first is “you can achieve anything – with a laser”; and the second is that we encourage “ingenuity in the design of the impossible”.’

Jepson is working on a ‘photonics kit’ for use in primary schools, which includes photovoltaic solar cells, opto-electronic circuit protoboards, LEDs, transistors, lenses, diffraction gratings, and many other photonic components. Both Davies and Jepson are keen that momentum is sustained throughout secondary school encounters. ‘By the time students get to 14 or 15,’ says Davies, ‘we are hoping that these former primary school students will maintain their initial enthusiasm and interest in science and modern technological opportunities. We anticipate that our training sessions with teachers will have a snowball effect of attracting even more teenage students towards the visually attractive realm of photonics.’

Ultimately, of course, the Photonics Academy wants to play a part in creating the next generation of optical engineers. To this end, Davies is hoping for an ever-increasing level of support from the photonics industry throughout the UK. ‘Many photonics companies are keen to employ high-quality, well educated personnel with experience in photonics. We are training exactly those type of people, so we would like to see even more support and involvement from photonics companies, both large and small, for what we are achieving here in the Photonics Academy will benefit the whole UK community in so many different ways.’

SPIE initiatives

SPIE is involved in education initiatives worldwide, and engages in different approaches, depending on the age of the student. Krisinda Plenkovich, director of education and community services for SPIE, says these initiatives start as early as junior school. ‘We try to get them interested in maths and science on a more general level often involving hands-on activities,’ she says.

To coincide with this year’s Advancing the Laser and LaserFest celebrations, SPIE has put together special ‘Hit the Target’ education kits for use by teachers and members, and offers ongoing materials in the form of posters, DVDs and so on. ‘It’s not just schools that can benefit from these materials,’ says Plenkovich. ‘We send out packs to groups such as scouts, explorers and so on.’

SPIE also runs an Education Outreach Grant programme, which disburses around $90k a year via grants of up to $5k to community programmes worldwide and supports science education in developing nations through a number of programmes including the Winter College at the International Centre for Theoretical Physic and the UNESCO-based Active Learning in Optics and Photonics teacher training. These funds go to support any community education project involving photonics. SPIE also presents photonics as ‘an exciting career path’. ‘We focus on the diverse career options available in our student materials and even provide sponsored prizes in school science fairs, for example,’ says Plenkovich.

With just under a third of SPIE’s membership being students, the organisation also supports them in making the transition from student to professional, with courses and training to help them build a successful career. Indeed, Plenkovich points out that the downturn may well be a good thing from a recruitment point of view. ‘For many students, the economic situation means a re-evaluation of one’s career path away from previously popular sectors like finance,’ she says. ‘Science and R&D are emerging as priority areas for economic recovery; we need to build on that and present it as an exciting field.’

The Netherlands

In the Netherlands, a government-backed scheme has been running for the past four years to encourage the development of photonics as an industry throughout the country. Benno Oderkerk, technical director at Avantes, is heavily involved in the scheme. ‘We’ve just found out that the funding has been renewed for another four years,’ he says. ‘We’re looking to strengthen ties between industry and academia, and thinking more about how we can ensure there are sufficient new skilled engineers coming through.

‘Photonics is an enabling technology and should be more prominent in the education system. We need to start that education at a lower level by introducing practical work packages in physics lessons, for example, which have some kind of optical set-up, perhaps with a spectrometer and so on. We need to ensure physics teachers get excited about photonics too, and encourage it to be taught in the same way as electronics.

‘There is plenty of university-level education available, but we also need to focus on mid-level education; we lose potential students before they reach university to disciplines that make themselves more attractive, such as video and photography. We need to emphasise how exciting our own industry is and persuade them into photonics.’

With so little formal photonics training available, Oderkerk believes it is up to the industry to provide as much training ‘on the job’ as possible. ‘We recently hired a training institute,’ he says, ‘and provided evening classes for our own employees to provide them with the best knowledge and background to do their jobs well. They were well attended and received enthusiastically.’

All of the emphasis on training is to ensure the future of the industry. ‘For Europe, we need to feed the industry with more quality engineers to ensure we stay ahead of China,’ says Oderkerk. ‘We’re also a growing industry – even during this past year – so the need for optical engineers is going to be even greater in the future.’