The International Year of Light was celebrated in 2015 with events all over the world highlighting the strategic importance of photonics and light-based technologies. As an enabling technology, photonics plays a key role in fields as diverse as manufacturing, health and medicine, communications, defense, and energy. A new advanced manufacturing institute dedicated to Integrated Photonics was also announced in 2015 which has attracted the highest public and private investment to date.
Focusing on the education of technicians, the Midwest Photonics Education Center was established in 2014 as an NSF ATE supported regional center. It brings together nine colleges and universities and numerous industry partners from nine Midwest states. Its main mission is to develop and grow two year photonics technician education programs to prepare the highly skilled workforce the photonics industry needs. The goals of the Center are: 1) Establish education programs and strategies to address industry needs for photonics technicians, 2) Provide national leadership for technician education in laser-assisted advanced manufacturing, 3) Strengthen educational institutions’ ability to recruit, train and advance photonics students including women, minorities and veterans, 4) Collaborate with partner educational institutions and employers to promote photonics in the K-14 space to fill the student “pipeline”, 5) Develop customized on-site photonics education workshops and provide to companies and colleges, and 6) Evaluate educational materials and share best practices.
Accomplishments during the first year since the Center was established include: mentoring and advising several colleges interested in adding dedicated photonics programs and infusing photonics courses in existing curricula, surveying 950 employers to determine their education and training needs in the photonics area, delivering outreach events to 8000+ K-12 students involving hands-on exploration of lasers and optics, providing professional development to faculty, participating in training and subsequently developing a recruiting and retention plan for females and minorities into the photonics technology field, and giving presentations about best practices in photonics technician education at several conferences. Next steps include setting up a laser assisted manufacturing laboratory at Indian Hills Community College and developing the associated curriculum to serve as a model for colleges in the Midwest interested in teaching this advanced manufacturing technology.
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