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Students get close look at photonics and optics

The high school students each held two strips of gray-tinted plastic they just had learned were polarized.

Then they were handed a clear plastic fork and asked to examine it through the polarized lenses.

“Psychedelic!” exclaimed one student.

Through the polarized material, they could identify by bright colors the areas where the polystyrene had been stressed when the material was extruded into the shape of a fork.

“Can you find the point where they injected it?” asked David Berg, of Oren Sage Technology LLC, one of several optics and photonics experts who spent Veterans Day with high school students from around the region.

The students are part of the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection, which aims to help at-risk students complete their high school education, learn about careers and develop a plan for their futures.

For some students, that may involve a future in photonics and optics. Some 40 students from the Rochester area volunteered to spend the school holiday attending Photonics Slam Day at East High School to learn more about this growing field.

In addition to Berg, representatives from AIM Photonics, Advanced Glass Industries Inc., Angstrom Precision Optics Inc. and Monroe Community College attended with demonstrations, talks and hands-on learning opportunities. East High contributed its laboratory space as the only high school in the nation with optics and ophthalmic labs.

“Do you know the sensor in your cellphone that allows you to take a picture of your friend, or a selfie, is an optic and photonic device?” asked Edward White, director of business operations and corporate outreach for AIM Photonics, in his introductory remarks.

Optics and photonics sensors allow robots in factories to measure and cut, he said. The industry is integral in 3-D goggles and night-vision sensors, he added.

“It is so broad, and there are many career opportunities, that it’s hard to get away from optics and photonics. … It’s virtually everywhere, and they are great, great careers,” White said.

John O’Herron, general manager at Angstrom Precision Optics, showed students how to grind a lens by holding it against a metal plate that spun like a pottery wheel. By adding an abrasive to the surface of the spinning plate and holding the glass against it, thin layers can be removed to reach the right tolerance.

“You rough grind, then you fine grind, then you polish,” he said.

Measurement came in microns, a unit that is a fraction of the thickness of a human hair.

Meghan Wagner, director of the Hillside Work-Scholarship Jobs Institute, said her group came up with the idea for the Photonics Slam Day when they realized the staff knew little about the industry.

First they invited photonics and optics experts to meet with them to explain their field. Then they enlisted their support in engaging with students.

Photonics Slam Day is a reference to the rough and ready poetry readings known as slams that get poets up and in front of audiences, presenting their poems out loud. In the same way, students got to participate in experiments and activities that would teach them more about the industry and some of the skills and science behind it.

Students will be invited to tour several local companies, including Advanced Glass and Optimax Systems Inc., and see the MCC Department of Optics and University of Rochester Laser Lab.

“We’re looking at you as the workforce of the future,” White told the students. Whether they go on to get a degree at MCC or a Ph.D. in optical engineering, “We need help today. We need help tomorrow, and we’re looking to you guys.”

11/18/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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