I am new to the field of Photonics. Currently, I provide outreach services at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. We are a two-year college, located in Cincinnati, OH, USA. I work specifically for the Electro-Mechanical Engineering Technology (EMET) program, under a grant from the National Science Foundation. My specific role is to increase enrollment into the EMET program’s Laser Major. I attend recruiting events to engage high school teachers, and spark the interest of students and parents.
In the Western world, we’ve fully embraced the technology that provides us cheaper electricity, less-invasive surgery, mobile phones, and high speed internet. We’ve embraced it so much that we don’t even know there’s an umbrella term for it! As I’m discussing the Laser Major, my job is to make something so ordinary, sound New! Exciting! Fresh! In other words, evoke a sense of awe. It’s fun, because it’s not as hard as I thought it would be. We are fascinated by light, as humans. Isn’t that interesting? We are fascinated by light. We watch fires glow for hours. We are mesmerized by displays of fireworks. Our attention is drawn to anything that flashes, sparks, or sparkles. Diffraction glasses have proven themselves to be great at getting a student’s attention. If you are ever trying to get any kind of reaction from an apathetic teenager, have them put a pair on. Then, shine a bright LED flashlight in their direction, and watch that bored-looking face light up! Once they are curious, I begin to explain how valuable a degree in photonics is, and why they need to take advantage of the opportunity.
According to a 2012 survey conducted by University of North Texas Survey Research Center, the US optics and photonics industry will need 4,115 photonics technicians over the next five years, with only 280-300 graduates being produced every year. [i] Here in Cincinnati, there is a high concentration of companies in the manufacturing industry. We design and build everything from consumer products to playing cards to jet engines. Lasers are becoming a necessary part of manufacturing processes. This means that people with the skills needed to adjust, maintain, and repair them are in high demand. This past October, Cincinnati State received more placement requests for students with laser training than we have students to fill them! On top of that, we are one of only two colleges in Midwestern United States to offer a laser program.
Contributing to this problem is the attachment to the image of what an engineer, or a technician, or a machine operator “look like”. Women and minority populations continue to be socialized to believe they are “not smart enough” to be engineers, or that they are “too soft” to work with tools. The aforementioned study suggests that just 4% of photonics technicians are African American, 14% are Hispanic, and 18% are Asian, with just 19% being female.[ii] We can’t expect the field to be overflowing with applicants, when only a fraction of the population is being actively recruited!
I recently attended an event aimed at encouraging eighth grade students to start thinking about their future career. I was at a career-technical high school. In the US, students at this type of high school learn the state-required curriculum through the lens of work-skills that are required in a particular industry. They will then pursue a career, or continue on to college. I spoke to hundreds of students at the two-day event. I will not soon forget this interaction with about six young women who were around thirteen years old. I got their attention by pushing six pairs of diffraction glasses in their general direction, and directing them to “Look through these glasses!” After the exclamations of “Whoa!” and “Cool!” quieted, I asked them what they thought being an engineer was all about. They said things like “Sitting at a desk all day,” “working with wrenches and machinery,” “and being super-smart or really good at math.”
“Basically,” said one young woman, “it’s not for us”.
I asked them what they like to do in their spare time. I heard lots of things, but waited for the activities that I could relate to engineering. Things like drawing, taking things apart and putting them back together, or solving puzzles. I stated that those are all things that a person with a “technical mind” might like to do. It takes perseverance, a good work ethic, and a desire to make your community or business better. I asked them, “Have you ever considered being an engineering technology as a career?” They all shook their heads, “no”. Three of them, though, finished the thought by proudly stating “… but I will now”.
While those glasses may have attracted the young women to my table, what created the feeling of awe was someone telling them “this field has the potential to change the world, and despite what you are told you can be a part of it.” We need to do a better job of countering these stereotypes with role models who represent the diverse nation we are. This means, we need to respect the contribution made by women and minorities equally. Benjamin Banneker, for example, was the first African-American Presidential Appointee, when he became a key member of the surveying team that designed Washington D.C. [iii] Emily Roebling was the chief engineer over the design and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which is modeled after the Roebling Bridge in Cincinnati. She became head of the project after her husband became bedridden due to illness.[iv]
“Optics and photonics is all about the science and engineering related to light,” says the SPIE poster hanging in my office. To me, the field of optics and photonics is all about opportunity. Employers are ready and waiting for trained individuals, and they don’t care what that student looks like, or where they came from.
[iv] Lewis, Anna M. “Emily Warren Roebling: She Built the Bridge.” Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers. 1st ed. Chicago: Chicago Review, Incorporated, 2014. 103-110. Print.
Credit and Disclaimer
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1400561. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
Carolyn Hulla-Meyer is an Outreach Specialist for the Electro-Mechanical Engineering Technology department at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College in Cincinnati, OH USA. Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Carolyn began working with Larry Feist, the department’s program chair in late 2014. Her prior experience in recruiting and career coaching drove her desire to help fuel job growth in the United States’ post-recession economy. As a women’s rights activist, she has been able to use her passion to encourage and assist young women in pursuing high-paying careers that are in-demand.