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Lessons in Light

Telescopes and kaleidoscopes were part of an innovative, hands-on optics technology workshop for Southern California middle school teachers

August 02, 2004 —

Teachers scope out the classroom lighting using the new telescopes they built.
How do you create a five-point star with a pencil-thin beam of laser light?

Fifty middle school science teachers and industry experts from Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties gathered at USC in July to find out.

Armed with laser lights, mirrors, protractors, paper cups and magnifying glasses, the teachers spent three days in Waite Phillips Hall of Education bouncing, bending and magnifying light. It was all part of the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program’s new optics training institute, which is geared toward strengthening the knowledge of middle school science teachers.

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s MESA program co-hosted the conference with the Optical Society of America (OSA), the International Society of Optical Engineering (SPIE), and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO).

Michelle Hauer, a USC electrical engineering graduate student, aims laser beams at a mirror, being held by a teacher, to demonstrate the laws of reflection.
“This is a great opportunity for science teachers to brush up on their science and learn about some of the technologies we see, but take for granted, in our everyday lives,” said Larry Lim, director of pre-college programs in the Viterbi School of Engineering. “But we wanted to make the learning fun.”

First of its kind

And fun it was. The workshop integrated lessons in optics with fun-filled technology demonstrations, featuring everything from laser experiments to building telescopes.

“The kids are going to love this,” said Darren Hayes, a science teacher at Willard Intermediate School, Santa Ana, after he learned how to build a kaleidoscope and teach the lesson in his own classroom.

“This is so neat,” said Alyne DeCoteau, a MESA teacher at Mt. Adams Middle School in White Swan, Wash., who drove to Los Angeles for the session with four other teachers.

Connie Walker, a NOAO education specialist, helps Darren Hayes, a Compton teacher, left, and Richard Farnsworth, right, of Lawrence Livermore National Observatory, design a five-pointed laser star using a single beam of light and some mirrors.
“Southern California has never held a hands-on teacher training institute like this before,” said Anthony Johnson, a professor of physics, computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Studies in Photonics. Johnson is the principal investigator of a three-year, $3-million National Science Foundation grant to develop and distribute the optics training modules to Southern California MESA schools.

“Educators are looking at the next 10 to 15 years and asking where the U.S. scientists and engineers are going to come from,” he said, “so we’re going after untapped potential -- women and underrepresented minorities at the middle and high school levels. I’m really fascinated at what I’m seeing here.”

Mission Impossible’

The hands-on p rojects were imaginative but designed to be simple, using ordinary inexpensive materials so that t eachers could easily recreate them, explained Michelle Hauer, a USC electrical engineering graduate student who volunteered to staff the event .

One of the projects — called “Mission Impossible” — was to design a laser security system intricate enough to protect a fictional museum’s prized, 20-karat diamond.

“If someone were to intercept a beam, an alarm would go off and alert the guards,” the instructions read. “Use every single

Evelyn Torres-Rangel, a computer science teacher at Gabrielino High School, crunches the numbers.
one of the mirrors and lasers provided to cover the floor of the room with laser beams. Test out your setup by having classmates try to walk around without getting hit by a laser beam. Protect that diamond!”

The teachers turned off the lights and positioned a neon red laser beam so that it ricocheted off six mirrors to form a web of light that no intruder could step through.

“We use lasers because they’re everywhere, in CD players, scanners, security systems, surgery and military weapons,” said Jason Briggs, OSA education program manager. "The physics and technology of lasers are ideas every student should be learning, but you’ve got to get the teachers onboard with the ideas first.”

As the magic of light and optics came alive, teachers were given an opportunity to build simple optical instruments. They started by constructing a simple refracting telescope using cardboard tubing. Then they added multi-colored beads to create kaleidoscopes.

“It’s important to reach these teachers, because they are really critical to MESA’s mission of improving students’ aptitude in math, science and engineering by the time they reach college,” Connie Walker, a workshop coordinator and science education specialist at NOAO in Tucson, Arizona, stressed.

Ramona Wilson, MESA Hands-On Optics program manager, takes a closer look through her magnifying glass.
“The sixth, seventh and eighth grades are the perfect time to catch kids and teach them about science and technology,” she said, “because by high school, they’ve shied away from it. It’s not cool enough.”

-- Diane Ainsworth