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Opto Camp sharpens middle schoolers career focus

When most people want a radio, they go out and buy one. But now, thanks to Opto Camp, 17 middle-schoolers have the knowledge and skills to build their own radios.

This July 19-23 marked the first summer Opto Camp, which was sponsored by the Center for Optical Technologies (COT) at Lehigh University in partnership with Northampton Community College (NCC) and Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCC). The camp was held at NCC.

The camp projects taught the kids how to mix colors, how lasers work, and how the human eye uses light. They also explored the basic principles of fiber optics, including ray tracing and meter stick optics. In one project, called wavelength routing, students used optical networks to eliminate the need for electrical conversions. The radio project used fiberoptics to transmit sound, which was hooked up to a radio.

“The COT is looking to inspire kids to get them into technology careers,” says camp director Barbara Canfield, the program manager for the Manufacturing Technologies Center for Business and Industry at NCC. “Although teachers try to tie science to careers in school, Opto Camp explores how biology, physics and technology can be used between fields. All science fields overlap here at camp, which gives the kids a better understanding of how they can use science in real life.”

Lehigh’s Center for Optical Technologies has received over $40 million in financial support since it was launched in 2001. The Center, which has expanded its faculty and renovated its labs, hosts research and company projects ranging from non-invasive glucose monitoring devices to computerized flexible display units for soldiers. The Opto Camp is part of Lehigh’s outreach efforts to interest students in science and engineering at younger ages.

“This camp is a project to get more students interested in optics,” says Keith Hartranft, a camp teacher and NCC assistant professor of computer networking and optoelectronics. “We also try to reach out to disadvantaged students by offering scholarships.”

Way cool

It’s not just the teachers who think Opto Camp “rules.” Andrew Hillenius, a ninth grader at Moravian Academy says, “Fiberoptics is neat, and it’s part of the future. I’m learning how to use a lot of equipment that I never used before, like how to use a function generator, which makes controlled signals and tones. I also learned how to use a oscilloscope, which shows the frequency of a signal.”

The 17 students explored sounds, color, imaging, and optical communication through a variety of projects and demonstrations throughout the week, which were guided by COT graduate students. “It’s rewarding to see their enthusiasm and how they put concepts together,” says Mark Webster, a postdoctoral student and research associate for COT. “These kids are very inquisitive.”

Optical technology is advantageous because it enables more information to be sent at a higher bit rate – more than a billion bits per second. “If it wasn’t for optics,” says Webster, “the Internet wouldn’t exist. This is a hands-on field, and I think it’s fun for kids.”

The kids worked in groups of three, using step-by-step manuals to construct different optical devices. “I like the projects that have more parts, because they’re more complex,” says Chelsea Dengel, a 13-year-old Unami Middle-schooler. “I think that it would be better to have more girls here, though.”

Jason Pritz of Holy Family Middle School explained that the Opto Camp projects were “much cooler than anything we do at school. I’m definitely coming back next year.”

The Opto Camp mission

One of the main goals of Opto Camp is to build kids’ confidence in optical technology and other science fields. “We chose to focus on middle-school kids because they are still mostly undecided about what fields they might want to pursue,” Canfield explains. “We try to expose them to as much as possible to give them confidence and inspire them to take more science classes in high school.”

Because optics is becoming increasingly popular, understanding the fundamentals of the field is useful to anyone who has a passion for science. “Optics is an especially advantageous talent for women, because companies are looking to diversify their workforces,” says Canfield.

“Since the beginning, the optics field has been dominated by men,” says James Dailey, a COT student who is working towards his Ph.D. in electrical engineering. “Only three out of 17 kids here at camp are girls, which is a great turnout, but there should be more. Nationally, only 10-15 percent of people in the optics field are women.”

Next year the camp will be held at LCCC, and Canfield says, “If we get enough funding, we’ll have two weeks of camp, and one week will be here again at NCC. This way we hope to get kids from different areas.”

--Heidi Schwartz

Posted on Thursday, July 29, 2004

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