K-12 Science Education – Where’s the Light?

Bringing STEM to Light

Bringing STEM to Light

Photonics, the science of light, drives the 21st century technical revolution in much the same way as electronics drove the technologies of the 20th century.  Skilled professionals are needed at every level to fill jobs in rapidly growing fields including medicine, defense, communication and energy.  The question is, can education keep up?

Typically, photonics industry and education leaders’  address that question with a focus on producing, recruiting and retaining  students at the graduate level and beyond.  While doctoral level graduates are extremely important to research and innovation, the future supply of required skills is ultimately dependent on developing competencies, interest and passion during the earliest years of education.

For more than 30 years, leaders in industry and academia have collaborated to transform science education from the ground up.  In the United States, these efforts have led to the recent release of a new set of standards – the Next Generation Science Standards or NGSS. While not yet universally accepted, these new standards offer a profound new structure for teaching and learning, and seek to make a definitive impact on everything from scientific literacy to the workforce.

The standards reflect a conceptual shift away from disciplinary content, discreet facts and lectures, and toward an interdisciplinary, applications based focus. The standards identify skills, practices and concepts common to all areas of science and engineering.

As the standards emphasize skills, practices and concepts common accross areas of science and engineering, they identify only four Core Disciplinary Ideas Physical Sciences – one of which is:

NGSS PS4: Waves and their applications in technologies for information transfer 

The selection of Core Disciplinary Ideas relies on meeting at least two of the four critera – photonics meets them all.

1. Have broad importance across multiple sciences or engineering disciplines or be a key organizing concept of a single discipline

According to the National Academy of Science study: Optics and Photonics: Essential Technologies for Our Nation, photonics is a key enabling technology driving research, innovation and markets in areas as diverse as communications; information processing and data storage; defense and national security; energy; health and medicine; advanced manufacturing; and strategic materials. This broad impact, often noted as a barrier to popular understanding and acknowledgement of the importance of photonics, makes it an ideal area of study for implementing the new standards. Photonics holds the messy, difficult business of interdisciplinary teaching and learning gracefully and powerfully.

2. Provide a key tool for understanding or investigating more complex ideas and solving problems

With its major role in enabling the exploration of outer space, the inner reaches of the human body and even the subatomic world, photonics is established as an essential tool for understanding and investigating the most exciting and complex ideas and frontiers of science and engineering. This allows teachers and curriculum developers to connect science and engineering skills, practices and concepts to applications that easily grab and hold students’ attention.

3. Relate to the interests and life experiences of students or be connected to societal or personal concerns that require scientific or technological knowledge

With its broad impact across market sectors and its role in exploring and investigating relevant ideas and issues it is easy to connect learning about photonics with societal and personal concerns that are likely to be of interest to many students. Whether a student is interested in the weather, the environment, renewable energy sources, space exploration, or biomedical research, the content area of photonics offers something for almost everyone.

4. Be teachable and learnable over multiple grades at increasing levels of depth and sophistication

The phenomenon of light is familiar, and offers a natural starting place for investigating photonics. Because a deeper understanding of light can be counter intuitive, however, there are many “wonderful” and surprising moments of learning along the way. The depth and sophistication of the field is immense.

So how much photonics is embedded in the Next Generation Standards? The answer is A LOT. The Core Disciplinary Ideas are broken down into four areas: Earth Science, Life Science, Physical Science, and Engineering, technology and Applications of Science.

What’s most notable for those of us who are interested in photonics, is found inside the Physical Science Core Disciplinary Ideas.

Within the Physical Science area, there are four broad sub-areas – the first three are “hold overs” from previous renditions of the standards; they are: PS1: Matter and its Interactions; PS2: Motion and Stability; PS3 Energy. The fourth is new: PS4: Waves and their Applications in Technologies for Information Transfer, which “introduces students to the ways in which advances in the physical sciences during the 20th century underlie all sophisticated technologies available today.” (NGSS, 2013)

While at first glance this idea does not appear to cover the enormous scope of photonics, if you look one step deeper into the standards you’ll see that the basic science that students are required to learn, forms the foundation of photonics in general. That the focus is on one application, information transfer, serves as an anchor or point of reference – an example of photonics in action to which students find it easy to relate.

Photonics is critical, not only to the workforce, market place and research, but to the foundation of science education. The future of light is indeed, very bright.