The Australian National University’s Student Chapter recently conducted an optics outreach program targeting teens in a remote part of Australia.
Students alongside the Guide Star experiment.
In a remote and sparsely populated region of Australia, the recent two-day outreach project “Bridging the Gap” lived up to its name in a number of ways. It gave science resources and experiments to families from an underserved area; shared the wonder of optics with high-school students; and even bridged the gap between generations by incorporating parents into scientific activities.
The program was designed as an extension of the “Optics in the Outback” program, which was described in the June 2007 issue of OPN. In that program, the Australian National University (ANU) Student Chapter organized a project to give the children of the outback a unique introduction to optics in their science education. Due to the lack of resources and sheer isolation of the outback, children there are generally less exposed to science and technology in their education, and therefore less likely to pursue academic careers when they grow up.
The recent program targeted older students—aged 14 to 17—who were further along in their education and, in some cases, actively considering universities. The students were from a small town outside of New South Wales called Nowra, which is a farming community that thrives on tourism and the dairy industry. The town has a relatively small population and three high schools.
The ANU Student Chapter invited students and guardians to stay at ANU for two days to participate in activities that showcased areas of study at the university, with particular emphasis on physics and optics. (Nowra is about three hours away from Canberra by car.) One of the major challenges of organizing the event was developing demonstrations that were educational, visually appealing and stimulating to young minds. We wanted students to get a taste of the research opportunities at ANU, while also letting them see that university life is fun and interesting.
On July 17th and 18th, a group of students from Nowra and their parents visited ANU. Professors and students from all over the university and various departments volunteered their time for the event, and the students and parents met academics from research areas such as nuclear physics, laser physics, plasma physics and engineering. They visited laboratories and tried their hand at demonstrations. Chapter members organized a laboratory exercise in which students and parents could use equipment designed for first-year physics labs and learn the physics behind a Michelson interferometer. They also visited the solar research group and were guided by an expert on the solar dish.
The group took a tour of the campus that covered almost all the departments and facilities, including the recreational center, libraries and residential halls. Such exposure was crucial to ensure that the students got a flavor for university life. Marketing and communications personnel gave a talk to explain the process of application and the requirements for studying science at ANU. This talk also covered available funding options for study and living in Canberra.
The students were given a kit that included items from the “Optics Suitcase,” which was designed by the OSA Rochester Local Section. The kit included diffraction gratings and torches, liquid crystal sheets and polarizers. They were also given a piece of polymer optical fiber and some written information on each item. Although the students had some knowledge of basic physics, they were unsure of some concepts that had been explained to them at school. Three officers of the Student Chapter gave talks that not only explained difficult concepts—including the wavelike nature of light and polarization—in a simple manner, but correlated them with practical applications such as optical communication and wave guiding. Each concept was introduced using visual aids and demonstrations.
The unique aspect of this outreach event was the inclusion of parents and guardians, who were given copies of the two-day schedule and invited to attend as many sessions as they liked. They greatly appreciated this opportunity, as they are very much a part of the decision-making process regarding their children’s future education. Several of the parents were actually school teachers at Nowra High School; this gave the chapter unique insight into the workings of the school and how it taught the core sciences. At the same time, the parents too got a glimpse into the workings of ANU and were pleasantly surprised to have had the opportunity to be part of all the activities.
According to feedback from the students and parents, the students enjoyed the give-away items and the hands-on demonstrations. They also commented on the friendliness and approachable attitude of the chapter members and hoped that next time the event would be longer than two days.
The head of science at Nowra High School thanked the Student Chapter and notified the local news as well as the New South Wales Science Association about the event. She said that the response was extremely positive and that they are looking forward to participating in the program next year.
This project was made possible by the OSA Educational Outreach Award. The Student Chapter would like to thank CUDOS (Centre of Ultrahigh bandwidth Devices of Optical Systems) and the Australian Institute of Physics for their financial support, students at the University of Macquarie and the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering at the ANU. We also acknowledge the time and hard work of all the staff and students who volunteered.
Amrita Prasad, Khu Tri Vu, Ting Han, Alex Minovich and Sarah Beavan are with the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering at the Australian National University.