Thursday, December 18, 2008

Math in Photonics Education: It all adds up.

Recently I’ve been talking about increasing the enrollment in photonics technology courses and programs. Last week we looked at successful strategies for “building the high school pipeline.” But once we’ve enrolled the students, how do we keep them? As I’ve looked at enrollment in photonics programs, I have frequently seen that the number of second-year students is less than half the number of first-year students. This indicates an attrition rate that is much too high.

Faculty at colleges tell me that most of their students love to work with lasers and optics - they’re not dropping out from lack of interest; they’re dropping out because they are struggling with the math.

A few years ago, Gary Beasley, lead instructor in lasers and photonics technology at Central Carolina Community College (CCCC), was losing over 60% of his students in the first semester - mostly because of the math. So, together we began working on that problem.

OP-TEC staff examined the math topics that were required in the first two photonics courses. We found the following eleven topics:

  • Scientific notation
  • Unit conversion
  • Introductory algebra
  • Powers and roots
  • Ratio and proportion
  • Exponents and logarithms
  • Graphing in rectangular coordinates
  • Geometry
  • Angle measure in two and three dimensions
  • Trigonometry
  • Special graphs

Then we developed a math supplement titled Mathematics for Photonics Education. In it we included a chapter for each of the eleven topics. Each chapter has a 2–3 page review of the math concept, followed by several pages of example calculations for problems that students typically encounter in photonics courses. The remainder of the chapter consists of exercises for student practice. We also prepared a diagnostic test that Gary (or any photonics professor) could administer to students who were beginning their first courses. The book is not a math text - it is a supplement that every new photonics student can own and keep for reference throughout the duration of his or her work at the college.

The next time Gary taught the first photonics course, every student had a copy of this math supplement - and they all took the diagnostic test. Before he began to teach a new topic, Gary would advise the students that to be successful, they would need to be proficient in a particular math concept. He would then make an assignment from one of the chapters in the supplement. He also identified (from the diagnostic test) the students who were weak on that particular topic. Those students were given a short tutorial in Gary’s office. This “just in time” delivery of math concepts reduced the dropout rate in Gary’s classes from 60% to almost 0%. (One student had to leave for personal reasons.) Gary now uses the math supplement on a regular basis, as do many other instructors. Most are careful not to call it a “math text” or to teach a math course from it; the college math department would probably not be happy with this.

So what have we learned from this? We know that, although most photonics students are capable, many are not as strong as they should be in mathematics. But if we address that problem, we can help a lot of students become successful photonics technicians, we can keep enrollments high, and photonics employers will benefit from having access to a steady supply of well-prepared employees.

In the dual credit high school photonics course that we are currently pilot-testing, we have embedded the supplemental math units in the course to help refresh the skills of the high school students in using these concepts and also to provide a photonics context for how they are applied in the workplace.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The “High School Pipeline” - Building Enrollment in College Programs

Like most technician programs at public, two-year colleges, photonics technologies are suffering from low enrollments. And many of the students that enroll in photonics programs have to drop out in the first year because they struggle with the math.

The graduates of these programs are all getting multiple job offers and very good salaries - but we don’t have enough grads because we don’t have enough well-prepared students. To solve this problem, we have to “get to the source” of most of our students - the high school graduates.

Most of the students who enroll - and are successful - in photonics technology were recent high school graduates who were in the middle 60% of the achievers. They are capable students that are frequently underperforming, for several reasons:

  • Most of them are “hands-on” learners (or contextual learners.) They usually do not achieve high grades in science and math classes when the coursework is taught in the typical, abstract mode. They ask questions like, “Why do I have to learn this?”

  • Many of them are not very interested in school because they couldn’t understand how what they were being asked to learn would ever be useful to them. They may not have “physically” dropped out of school, but they dropped out, “mentally”.

  • They lack confidence as a student; they don’t think they are “college material.”

Colleges are learning that they can recruit these students in exciting STEM technologies like photonics, and they can help high schools to get them prepared, if they intervene when the students are in the early years of high school. The secret is to engage them in STEM “Career Pathways” that begin in the 9th or 10th grade and continue into college.

How can colleges help? Here are some strategies that have proven successful by some of OP-TEC’s Partner Colleges that teach photonics:

  1. Engage a young recruiter (someone in their 20’s) to frequently visit the high school campuses and talk to the students about photonics - but don’t call it photonics; call it “Lasers”. The recruiters don’t have to be old engineers or technology experts; some of the best recruiters have marketing backgrounds. You can teach them all they need to know about the field in a short time. Some of them are young mothers who want to work part time. Our colleges have all found that the “return on investment” is quite high.

  2. Work with local high schools to offer “Dual Credit” courses in photonics (or lasers) to high school juniors and seniors. Usually these courses are offered as technology courses, not science courses. OP-TEC is pilot testing an introductory photonics course for dual credit (secondary/post secondary). It is being delivered as a hybrid, online course. For one period each day, the students go to a computer lab in the high school and take the online portion of the course. There is a math/science or technology teacher also available in the lab to assist in the math and problem-solving aspects. Every two weeks, the students travel to the college and spend an afternoon in the laser labs. When they complete the course, the students receive high school credit for a technology course - and college credit for a course that counts towards an associate degree in photonics.

So why are these two strategies helping to build college enrollments? First, the recruitment strategy helps them discover a rewarding career field that’s interesting; and shows them an educational pathway that will allow them to begin the process early in high school. Second, the dual credit course allows them to start taking courses that they may use in their career, and it gives them some college credits while they are still in high school - that’s worth some $$.

But it does several other things as well. It assures that their math skills are developed to a level that they can be successful in college. It also places them in the environment of a college campus, and helps them understand that they can do college work. That’s a huge confidence builder for many “middle 60%” students. And, these students are our future technicians.

In the next few weeks I plan to talk about another long-term strategy for recruiting high school graduates. This strategy includes the use of “summer workshops” for both high school teachers and students. This strategy also works well, but takes time.

What other strategies are you using to build up your enrollment? Do you want more information about OP-TEC’s initiatives with student recruiters or dual enrollment courses? Contact us or share your feedback here!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Rebuilding the Electronics Core Curriculum with High-Tech Specialties like Photonics

Electronics Engineering Technology (EET) programs in most colleges are seeing declines in their enrollments, causing many programs to close. One reason for this decline is that students perceive electronics as a dead-end career path that does not have the high-tech appeal of other emerging technical fields. These closures are having a serious ripple effect that could negatively impact other two-year college technical programs.

In the last several years, three OP-TEC Partner Colleges (Indian River State College, Central Carolina CC and Indian Hills CC) have redesigned their electronics core to incorporate photonics and other high-visibility, emerging technologies such as robotics, biomedical equipment, homeland security and telecommunications. Because of these changes, along with focused, aggressive high school recruiting strategies, these colleges have all experienced significant growth in enrollment. One of the colleges has moved from a low enrollment that placed the program at risk, to enrollments that are exceeding their capacities.

A paper has recently been prepared that describes the process, the curriculum models at the three OP-TEC Partner Colleges and the results. A complimentary copy of this paper is available by e-mail or by download from our website. I encourage you to review this paper and post any comments or questions.

Click here to request a copy of the paper by e-mail!

Click here to view, save and/or print a copy of the paper (PDF file) on the OP-TEC website!
To access this paper from the main OP-TEC website page,, simply click on the "Curriculum Materials" link and then select the paper title, Revitalizing Electronics Engineering Technology Programs Through a Core Curriculcum Structure and Emerging Technologies, from the "OP-TEC Photonics Program Planning Materials" list.