Michigan Light Project: Shining a light on optics

The MLP seeks to provide outreach and education about the world of optics in general, and the optics industry in Michigan specifically.

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By teaching children how to build a hologram and piezo-electric animals, members of the Michigan Light Project (MLP) are introducing the future generation to technology that is key to modern society. Optics and photonics technologies have already enabled modern displays, internet communications, precision manufacturing, medical diagnostics, solar cells, efficient lighting, and much more. These technologies are expected to continue their influence well into the future as researchers are able to manipulate ever smaller elements.

Capitalizing on UNESCO’s designation of 2015 as the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015), the MLP seeks to provide outreach and education about the world of optics in general, and the optics industry in Michigan specifically. The academics, industrialists, and artists involved are using this forum to demonstrate the amazing aspects of light and energy in society as well as to promote awareness that the State of Michigan is a worldwide hub of light-related industry, culture, and art.

ECE students and researchers were instrumental in establishing the MLP, and are having a blast introducing the science of light to K-12 children. The group organized their first event in June at the Ann Arbor Summer Fest Kids Zone Tent, featuring fun and educational demos of optical technology.

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The Kids Zone Tent event drew a crowd of all ages, and the light-focused activities on display gave them plenty to see. Attendees could decorate and take home their own “piezo-electric animals” out of motion-powered LED lights and foam, and check out solar-powered balls that roll around in bright light, microscopes, and an outdoor dancing hologram. MLP’s members made the stands educational and interactive, each providing a different lesson about light and vision.

This display was a joint effort with the U-M Student Astronomical Society (SAS). The group’s members provided a solar telescope, and educational displays about diffraction, color filtering, and the human eye. SAS run a monthly open house at the Angell Hall Observatory.

“The tent went really well, we got lots of feedback from people who enjoyed learning about science,” says Elizabeth Dreyer, a founding member and key group organizer. Elizabeth also founded the joint student chapter of the Optical Society of America (OSA) and International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE).

MLP held its second event at Detroit’s Metro Youth Day alongside ECE as part of the U-M tent. Elizabeth and ECE Research Scientist John Nees brought the group’s activities to a crowd of over 5,000. Throughout the day, they made 55 holograms of R2-D2 (of Star Wars fame) for a long line of eager participants. They also discussed the creation of laser holography, which originated at Michigan.

Next up on MLP’s calendar is Flint’s Back to the Bricks Festival, where they will set up an all-day stand for their demos. More events are being planned for the fall semester, and MLP hopes to carry this momentum beyond 2015. The International Year of Light promises to be a huge success for Michigan optics.

In addition to outreach, MLP members hope to make Michigan a recruitment hotbed for optics companies, both local and international.

“We want to get more optics companies to our career fairs,” says Elizabeth. “At the least, we want to make sure the companies who do come are aware that there are students here with optics backgrounds.”

MLP’s founding members represent several local optics organizations, including OSUM, the Ann Arbor OSA, and Mi-Light, the local optics industry cluster. SPIE, OSA, and Mi-Light also sponsor MLP, along with local optics companies Thorlabs and IPG Photonics.

“I’m excited about raising the profile about what optical technologies can do for the state of Michigan,” says Elizabeth. “Michigan has a strong optics industry – it has been growing over the past couple years, and influences so many different technologies.”

See photos from MLP’s Early Events here.

About the International year of Light

Sponsored by the United Nations, the International Year of Light is a global initiative to highlight the importance of light and optical technologies. A number of international scientific unions and the International Council of Science, including more than 100 partners from more than 85 countries, are planning activities to celebrate.

2015 was selected as the IYL in part due to the confluence of several anniversaries in the world of optics. It marks the 1000-year anniversary of the start of optics studies by Ibn Al-Haytham, the 150-year anniversary of Maxwell’s equations (which form the foundation for the study of optics), the 100-year anniversary of Einstein’s theory of the photoelectric effect and general relativity, and the 50-year anniversary of the transmission of light through fibers for the first optical communication.

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