Monday, November 24, 2008

Lasers, Optics or Photonics: What should we call it?

It’s amazing (and at times, perplexing) how we can form strong feelings about things that are somewhat subjective. A good example is the title we give to technical education programs that deal with optics, electro-optics and lasers. At OP-TEC, we choose to call them “photonics”. But is there a clear distinction in these names, and should we choose one title or another, depending on the course content or students that we are teaching?
  • Optics is a branch of physical science that emerged over a hundred years ago to support astronomy and the studies of color. It deals primarily with light sources and the manipulation of light rays (or beams) by lenses, prisms and mirrors. It helps us understand instruments like telescopes, microscopes and spectrometers.
  • Electro-optics emerged slightly before the middle of the last century. It deals with the interaction between electronics and optical radiation. Its early applications were with light sensors that converted light to electrical signals. Later, it also dealt with devices that convert electrical power to light.
  • The development of quantum optics led to the discovery of the laser in 1960. Over the next 20 years, developments in lasers, fiber-optics and light-emitting diodes led us to the term photonics. The name photonics really took hold in the 1980s as laser & fiber-optics applications expanded widely in telecommunications.
  • In a very precise way, the term photonics connotes:
    - the particle properties of light,
    - the potential of creating signal processing technologies using photons, and
    - an optical analogy to electronics.

But in recent years (since the turn of the century), photonics has become the high tech term that encompasses optics, electro-optics, fiber-optics, lasers and solid-state lighting. Thus, it is our practice to use the term photonics to refer to all technical education programs that incorporate these fields. There are two exceptions:

  • The fabrication, testing and handling of precision optics is referred to as precision optics technology.
  • High school technology courses that are designed to provide the fundamentals of photonics should be referred to as Lasers Systems, in order to have the high tech aura that will attract young people to study this field. If photonics is added as a topic in physics or another lab science course, the topic should be named photonics.

How do you feel about this? What is your experience? Please write a response to this controversial topic.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What’s our capacity for producing photonics techs? What's the need?

This past summer, we attempted to locate all of the two-year colleges that offered education and training on photonics, lasers and/or optics. We examined compilations from a variety of sources, scanned the Internet and asked other colleges. We identified 28 colleges and attempted to contact them. The 26 colleges we reached are:

Camden County College, Central NM CC, Central Carolina CC, Heald College, Idaho State Univ (2 yr) Indian Hills CC, Indian River SC, Indiana Univ/Penn (2yr), Irvine Valley/CACT, Kauai CC, Linn St CC, Maui CC, Monroe CC, Queensborough CC, Pima CC, San Jose CC, Springfield TCC, Stevens Inst of Tech, Three Rivers CC, Univ No Cal (2 yr), Valencia CC, Vincennes Univ (2 yr), Texas State TC, Tri-County TC, Wallace CC, Wash St Univ (2 yr)

Twenty-four of these colleges provided us information on current enrollment and recent completers. Some of the colleges offered complete AAS programs in Laser/Electro-Optics or Photonics; others offered some photonics courses in their electronics core, or as elective courses in other technical specialties; and others offered courses for retraining or upgrading. In total, the 24 colleges had about 700 students enrolled and estimated about 280 completers each year. This is not enough! In 2003, we conducted a needs assessment of employers to determine how many new photonics techs they needed each year. The projected need through 2008 is about 1800 new techs/year. Only 280 new techs available when 1800 are needed is quite a gap! One of OP-TEC’s main goals is to close that gap.

Here’s how we are working on this goal:
  • About 1/3 of the techs (500-600 teach year) are needed in R&D, for OEMs or in field service - they require a full AAS in laser/electro-optics or photonics.
  • About 2/3 of the techs (1000-1200) are needed to operate and maintain photonics equipment that is being used in another field where photonics is an enabling technology.
  • About 1/3 of the techs are already working and need retraining in photonics.

OP-TEC has a developed a plan and curriculum for colleges to serve each of these populations. We will also conduct a new needs assessment later this year to update the data from the 2003 study. It’s possible that our information about colleges that offer photonics education and training is incomplete. If your college has offerings, and you are not in the list shown above, please contact us so that we can add your data to our records.