Friday, December 11, 2009

Photonics Colleges Receive “High School Pipeline” Grants

Many colleges that offer educational programs in emerging technical fields are making innovative changes in their curricula and student recruiting strategies. Their goal is to increase the number of students who enroll in and complete their programs, and to make their curriculum content more relevant to changes in employer requirements for technicians. This is especially true for colleges with photonics programs.
  • Photonics specialties are being designed to build on a “systems-oriented” technical core that is capable of supporting related technologies such as robotics, telecommunication, microelectronics, and biomedical equipment. These revitalized programs have a broader student appeal than more narrowly focused programs because they prepare students to pursue interesting, rewarding careers in multiple advanced technologies.

  • Targeted recruiting efforts to build the “high school pipeline” have been created using cost-effective strategies designed to inform teachers and students about career opportunities in photonics and related fields and the requirements for entering and succeeding in postsecondary photonics education programs. In many cases, students can begin those programs while they are still in high school through dual-credit courses.

In the last three years, several of OP-TEC’s Partner Colleges have incorporated both of these strategies - resulting in an impressive 15-50% increase in student enrollment over the last two years. The colleges have documented their methodologies and achievements in monographs that have become models for photonics program improvement. Other photonics colleges have begun to adopt these “best practices,” hoping to realize similar improvements.

Two colleges that are rebuilding their photonics technician programs in an impressive manner are Central New Mexico Community College (CNMCC) and Monroe Community College (MCC). Over the last several years the well-established optics and photonics programs at these institutions have experienced severe declines in enrollment due to faculty retirement and an obvious need to update their curricula and labs. Early this year, these two colleges, with new faculty and significant support from regional photonics employer clusters, engaged in program improvement initiatives that resulted in a redesigned curriculum core that supports OP-TEC photonics infusion courses. The colleges have also engaged in partnerships with nearby high schools to develop dual-credit courses in photonics.

This week OP-TEC will award $15,000 matching grants to each college to increase its enrollment through “high school pipeline” efforts.

  • CNMCC will use its grant to hire a dedicated high school recruiter who will meet with students, parents, and teachers at nearby high schools to inform them of career opportunities for photonics technicians and opportunities to enroll in CNMCC’s photonics program, even while still in high school. This effort is patterned after the model developed by Indian River State College. The New Mexico Optics Industry Association is sponsoring high school dual-credit photonics courses in an effort to jump-start the process. In the summer of 2010, CNMCC will also conduct two week-long “boot camps” for secondary students who are interested in photonics, using the model developed by the Northpointe two-year campus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania (an OP-TEC Partner College).
  • MCC will use its grant to fund two four-day training programs for high school science and math teachers that will take place in the summer of 2010. The teachers will be introduced to a variety of fundamental concepts pertinent to optics and photonics. They will also participate in lab experiments that apply the concepts. The objective is for the teachers to be able to replicate those experiments in their classrooms. Through the OP-TEC grant, MCC will provide supplies for the labs of the participating high school teachers. MCC is supporting the high school outreach efforts through the NY/Rochester Photonics Industry Cluster and several high school intermediary organizations.

Increasing the number of completers of postsecondary photonics technician programs is vital to the security and economic competitiveness of our country. The demand for photonics technicians by our nation’s employers far exceeds the supply currently being produced by our colleges. Early this year, OP-TEC commissioned a national study by the University of North Texas (UNT) to determine the number of new photonics technicians needed by U.S. employers. The study concluded that 2100 new photonics technicians will be needed in 2010 and that 5900 more will be needed over the next five years. Last year, OP-TEC surveyed U.S. two-year colleges to assess our nation’s ability to produce new technicians. The results of this survey showed that the U.S. has 28 photonics colleges with a combined enrollment of 780 photonics students and about 230 completers each year. Obviously, the gap between supply and demand - 2100 needed versus 230 supplied - is large. OP-TEC is attempting to close this gap in three ways:

  • Starting new photonics education programs (Three colleges began offering photonics for the first time this fall.)
  • Increasing student enrollment in and completion of existing photonics education programs through the “HS pipeline” initiative
  • Helping colleges provide photonics education for employed technicians

For more information about the OP-TEC/UNT study, or to download the report, please visit

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