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Outreach Olympics Showcase Student Efforts Around the Globe

By Kathy Sheehan

Students from SPIE Student Chapters throughout the world competed in an Optics Outreach Olympics on Sunday evening, demonstrating the educational projects they have organized to illustrate and promote optics and photonics in everyday life.

Students and others who participated in the SPIE Optics Outreach Olympics in August also understand how visual imagery can spread knowledge and even motivate some to have a career in science. The competition among SPIE Student Chapters was designed for members of the optics communicate to share and promote successful outreach efforts. A panel of judges also rated the presentations and awarded medals to the top three teams.

The event opened with a laser light show by Sean Kearney (LaserGuy Productions), who also hosted a table at the event. Additionally, there was a demonstration of simple telescope optics by Richard Youngworth (Light Capture).

The gold medal was awarded to a team from the Optics Department at Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica Optica y Electronica (Mexico) for the kaleidoscopes, periscopes, and other “optics toys” that they help youth build to understand the principals of optics and photonics. The team offers simple and inexpensive templates so youth can go home and build their own 3D glasses, kaleidoscopes, periscopes, and other objects that could spark an interest in science.

The silver medal went to the Three Rivers Community College (Connecticut, USA) SPIE Student Chapter for its demonstration of polarized light art. Its project shows people how flowers and other shapes made out of clear cellophane can be colorized using light and polarizers.

A bronze medal was awarded to the University of Toronto (Canada) SPIE Student Chapter for its popular laser graffiti project.

Judges for the Optics Outreach Olympics were SPIE Senior Members Theresa Axenson of Lockheed Martin Co. (USA) and Cristina Solano of the Centre de Investigaciones en Optica (Mexico), Melanie Stuart of San Diego State University (USA), and Marc Nantel of Ontario Centres of Excellence (Canada).

A team from the University of Arizona that brought several specimens of dissected cow eyes was also popular with the judges and attendees. Katie Schwertz, a graduate student in optical engineering, said UA students have used the animal eyes in programs at middle schools and high schools to interest young people in science and math and to show how similar the cows eyes are to human eyes and to cameras.

“Gross!” is often the students' first response, she says, “until they look at them, and we explain the different parts.” Then, “the response quickly changes to 'cool!'

“It was the same thing for me when I first dissected a cow eye,” Schwertz says. “I approached it with a lot of trepidation but quickly found that it was a really neat experience.”

The event also included a tournament of the laser game, Khet; hosted by game creator Michael Larson. Winners of the Khet tournament, in order of finish, were SPIE members Adad Yepiz Escalante (Tecnológico de Monterrey), Hugo Lemieux (Universite Laval), Rafael Cosman (La Jolla High School), and Andrea Rosales-Garcia (Boston University).

Chapter members describe organizing and participating in outreach activities as an extremely rewarding and thoroughly enjoyable experience for all involved. The Optics Outreach Olympics in San Diego provided an opportunity for chapters to share their activities with the wider optics community.