Taking the Optics Suitcase into Schools to Inspire Careers in Light

With more than 150,000 job openings on Indeed that have words like optics, fiber optics, photonics, imaging, and lasers, the need to inspire people to enter into careers in light is acute. To help solve this growing challenge, Dr. Stephen D. Jacobs, along with members of Optica’s Rochester Section (ROSA), developed the Optics Suitcase. To date, more than a thousand of these innovative educational outreach kits have been delivered to classrooms around the world to introduce students to technology concepts.

The Optics Suitcase

Luminate caught up recently with Jessica DeGroote Nelson, Education Chair of ROSA and Manager of the Optics Suitcase program, to learn more about this international initiative and how optics professionals can get involved.

“The objective of the suitcase is two-fold: Introduce middle-school-age students within a short period of time to the dynamic and exciting range of concepts in the study of light and, second, make it easy for optics professionals to present these concepts using experiments that highlight their own interests, job, and work environment,” says Nelson.

Each Optics Suitcase contains supplies and giveaway theme packets for in-class presentations, along with a detailed presentation guide that gives presenters easy techniques for engaging students within a 45-minute lesson. The three interactive experiments that are included allow students to explore the colors constituting white light in the form of diffraction (The Rainbow Peepholes), polarization (Magic Stripes), and selective reflection (Magic Patch). The kits are available in English, Deutsch, Español, Portuguese, and Simplified Chinese.

Optics Suitcase - Rainbow PeepholesNelson explains that when professionals are excited to talk about what they do each day, it helps students envision what a career in optics or technology could look like for them. The suitcase helps to reinforce that potential by providing packets that each student can take home to teach siblings, parents, or friends about what they learned — a tactic she hopes will get even more people interested in science.

The program is fortunate to have support from the Optica Foundation, along with Masline Electronics, which sources the components, puts the kits together, and distributes them to Optica chapters — all at cost. Nelson’s colleague, Tanya Z. Kosc, PhD, is also a driving force.

Implementing the program, however, hasn’t been easy. For example, the cost to ship the suitcases is greater than the cost of the actual kits. Sometimes kits that are shipped never make it to their locations due to import and export regulations or customs clearance issues. To get around this, the program has teamed with the Optica Foundation to have leaders from the student chapters who come for its annual conference take the suitcases back with them to their respective countries.

“It’s easier to send the suitcases to companies. So, if their employees want to present the concepts to schools in their area, we can typically get it to them. We also take advantage of conference travel. If I or one of my colleagues are going to a conference, we take the suitcases with us and hand them off to someone who has interest in presenting to students in their area,” adds Nelson.

This volunteer effort helps the program deliver 50 to 100 suitcases annually — a number that doesn’t quite satisfy the demand or urgency for this type of educational tool.

“We’ve had interest in extending the program to other concepts. Committee members have purchased models of the eye to talk about this component and what they’re working on. We have another team from the University of Rochester that has created a virtual Optics Suitcase that offers students the ability to watch content, observe something in their environment, and then answer questions. This has helped us to deliver educational opportunities throughout the pandemic. Next up will be a color mixing suitcase.”

While there is tremendous opportunity to extend the program, Nelson reinforces the importance of developing multiple learning tools. “Just one event alone won’t make someone want to go into math, science, or engineering. Students need multiple experiences to see a path for their future. The suitcase is just a starting point to ignite that journey.

“If you’re already in the optics profession, you can help us bring the benefits of the suitcase to more people by getting a suitcase and giving presentations in your local community, or by volunteering on our committee,” Nelson concludes. “Our team is always looking for more ideas to get the next generation excited about the wonderful field of optics.”

Jessica Nelson is Senior Director of Optical Product Development at Edmund Optics and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Institute of Optics.

For more information on the Optics Suitcase, visit the ROSA website or contact education@osarochester.org.