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.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I like the textbook "Mathematics for Photonics Education" developed by the OP-TEC. We use the book as the prerequisate or co-requisate for the EO related courses.