Northwestern University Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science

Center for Photonic Communication and Computing


Throughout the past few years Northwestern University's student chapter of the Optical Society of America (OSA) has raised community awareness of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Center for Photonic Communication and Computing (CPCC), and the leading edge science and engineering activities at Northwestern University. Through its academic outreach program the OSA encourages interest in science, and optics in particular, by providing students in a variety of settings hands-on experience with optics and optical applications.

The program, as it is currently run, involves visiting classrooms and running educational and fun demonstrations for Chicago-area students from grades 5 through 12. Most events consist of running three demonstration stations per twenty-person classroom, allowing for smaller groups and a more personal experience. We typically donate a demonstration kit (an "OSA Discovery Kit" available through Edmond Scientific) to each teacher we visit so they have some tools to continue to discuss optics in their classroom. Optics related prizes, such as small prisms, diffraction grating glasses, are handed out to students. These encourage students to share the experience with their parents and discover, on their own, some of the fascinating properties of light.

To date, these events have been tremendously successful. In the past years we have visited over a dozen schools and have reached out to over 1500 students, and our activities have been publicized in theNorthwestern Observer (May 25, 2000) and Optics and Photonics News (Nov. 2002). Finally, the outreach program provides a positive connection between Northwestern University and the local community.

There are five standard demonstrations that are part of the existing program, most of which can be used, with slight adjustments, for all grade levels.

Demonstration #1: "Analog and Digital Optical Communications"
This free space optical link demonstrates the basics of optical communications wherein students learn how various everyday devices work, and begin to understand the difference between analog and digital signals.

Demonstration #2: "Optics in the Fish Tank and Jell-O Optics"
A fish tank, flashlights and laser pointers are used to demonstrate refraction, reflection, and total internal reflection (TIR) at the surfaces of water in the fish tank.

Demonstration #3: "Lenses, Imaging and Theta-Modulation"
Using a white light source, transparent objects, and various lenses we can demonstrate the basics of imaging using lens systems.

Demonstration #4: "The Optics Discovery Kit" -
Students who are not motivated by guided demonstrations often respond nicely to unstructured "discovery" time. We have purchased classroom Optics Discovery Kits and allow students to experiment with the pieces of that kit in a lightly supervised setting.

Demonstration #5: "Liquid Crystal Mood Patch"
Each student makes a "mood patch" from temperature sensitive cholesterol-based liquid crystal. Discovering the properties of the material encourages them to think about color, crystal formation, and the effects temperature can have on materials.

If you are a teacher or a school administrator and would like to arrange a visit please contact Cindy West at 847-467-2172 or cindy AT