Is There a Badge for Refractive Optics?

Girl Scout power meets photonics fun during an engaging education-outreach event
21 November 2019
by Daneet Steffens
Budding optical engineer demonstrates a kaleidoscope.
IMAGE ENHANCEMENT: Budding optical engineer demonstrates a kaleidoscope.

While learning how to build pinhole cameras and exploring the cool workings of kaleidoscopes — not to mention an interactive session of refracting light through bubbles — two dozen San Diego Girl Scouts enjoyed an enlightening half-day at DRS Daylight Solutions last month.

DRS Daylight Solutions, a provider of mid-infrared, quantum cascade laser sources for the life sciences, research, industrial, and defense industries, was one of ten 2019 Women in Optics Activity Grant recipients of a $500-grant for an outreach education event. Initiated by Daylight Solutions' STEM Outreach Committee, the organization hosted the 4th through 8th graders at their headquarters in San Diego.

Daylight Senior Manufacturing Engineer Cynthia Maley — who specializes in optical test engineering — led the girls through a series of hands-on activities including a demonstration of the principles of pinhole cameras, the inner machinations of how a kaleidoscope works, all kinds of light-focused fun with bubbles, and Daylight's legendary Laser Beam Alignment Challenge.

Girls having fun with the laser beam alignment challenge

LASER FOCUSED: Working on the laser beam alignment challenge.

"We use a red diode laser mounted on a wooden block which is taped to a table," says STEM Outreach Committee Chair Tom Watson. "And, in conjunction with that, we have freestanding mirrors, a couple of targets and bullseyes, another block with a PVC tube, a beam-splitter, and extra materials such as popsicle sticks. All these elements are utilized in a laser-beam challenge with the goal of pointing the laser successfully at various targets: you can take the mirrors and figure out how to position them on the table so that they reflect the laser beam onto a target, reflect the beam through the PVC tube to hit a target, and so on." For some of the challenges, the girls had to build their own custom mirror mounts using those handy popsicle sticks and tape.

In addition, Maley and two of her engineering colleagues, Alyssa Saad and Kim Saldana, spoke at the event, discussing their experiences and career trajectories as professionals in the photonics industry. In the Q&A session that followed, they responded to questions such as, "What steps did you follow to get to where you are today?" "Do I have to be good at math to be an engineer?" and "What do you like to do outside of work?"

Girls get an introduction to thin film interference while having fun with bubbles

BLOWING BUBBLES: An introduction to thin film interference while having fun with bubbles.

"Both of my daughters attended the event and they loved it," says Tobey Tam, who is also a Girl Scout troop-leader. "The program was well-organized, with interactive workshops that were nicely timed and engaging. The segments with the female engineers talking about what they majored in in college and how they got into the photonics field was very interesting and provided a scaffold for the girls to think about. My older daughter never considered going into the engineering field until she attended this program. The laser workshop was her particular favorite."

"I had a lot of fun at the event and I think the girls in attendance did as well. I think we did a great job trying to get this thing off the ground for the first time, and I believe there is a lot of exciting room for improvement if we decide to do it again," notes Saad, who serves as a member of Daylight's STEM Outreach Committee.

"I think the event made the young women aware that many different kinds of women can enjoy working in optics," Maley adds. "Now that they are aware of it as a career choice, there is a much higher chance that some of them will choose an optics profession."

In 2020, SPIE is expanding its Women in Optics Activity Grant program to help support other under-represented groups in optics and photonics. You can find more information on the 2020 Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Activity Grant and apply for a grant before the December 31 deadline here.  

So, is there a Girl Scout badge to be earned for Refractive Optics? Not yet — but a girl can dream.

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