Archive for June, 2011

The ABC’s of Photonics Technician Jobs

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

In 2009, ATE’s National Center for Optics and Photonics Education conducted a survey which found that to keep up with industry demand, U.S. employers will need to add approximately 1,200 new photonics technicians each year through 2014. Photonics is “the technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon.” The demand for technicians trained in its applications is not surprising — it turns out there’s hardly an industry in existence that doesn’t require workers with this expertise. From Agriculture to Engineering, from Environmental Technology to Homeland Security, as well as Manufacturing, Medicine and Transportation, there’s a growing need for photonics technicians. (See full list below.)

We turned to the National Photonics Skill Standards for Technicians to learn about a few of these wide-ranging career opportunities and to better understand what the jobs entail. (With so many industries to choose from, we decided to start at the beginning of the alphabet.)

A is for Aerospace. Photonics technicians are critically important to the aerospace and national defense industries. Why? Because unlike using conventional electronic energy, the photonics devices must be resistant to electromagnetic interference. In this industry, light energy is specifically used in infrared systems and image processing. Technicians work with engineers and scientists to construct, test, operate and maintain systems for all kinds of spacecraft and national defense control systems. Specific job responsibilities might include operating, installing, calibrating, troubleshooting and repairing equipment.

On a typical day, a photonics technician in the aerospace industry might find himself or herself collecting and recording data, operating test equipment, performing lab tests, developing tests to ensure quality control, modifying procedures to solve specific problems, or laying out experimental circuits to test scientific theories.

B is for Biomedicine. Biomedical optics and medical imaging are key components of the health care industry, and photonics technicians play key roles in their operations.

According to the Photonics Skill Standards, photonics technicians in medicine work in hospitals and research facilities to install, inspect, maintain and repair complex equipment and instruments used in medical diagnosis and treatment. Equipment might specifically include electronic devices, optical components, diagnostic scanners, ultrasound equipment, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines and lasers used in surgery.

Day-to-day responsibilities could include inspecting and testing equipment to make sure it complies with performance and safety standards. If you go into Biomedicine, you might also find yourself handling equipment maintenance to head off problems and prevent small problems from becoming serious issues. Technicians also might find themselves dissembling equipment to locate malfunctioning components, replacing defective parts, and then reassembling the equipment. Once those tasks are complete, you might also be responsible for adjusting and calibrating the equipment to make sure it’s operating according to manufacturer specifications. Keeping careful records of machine repairs and maintenance checks is another essential component of the job.

C is for Communication (including fiber optics, transmitters and sensors). If you’re a photonics technician who chooses a career in the Communication field, you are likely to wind up working for a company that uses optical fiber capable of carrying telephone voice services across local regional and nationwide networks. Which companies, you ask? It could be any corporation, bank, university or other large entity that depends on private networks to transmit digital data. You might also wind up working for a cable television or community antenna television (CATV) company, both of which use optical fiber systems to transmit signals to subscribers via video. On any given day, you might work with sophisticated electronic test equipment as well as fusion splicers, optical power meters and laser sources and detectors.

Still curious about the rest of the alphabet? Here are some more industries where photonics applications — and photonics technicians — are integral to business.

Agriculture – Uses satellite remote sensing to detect large-scale crop effects, scanning technology and infrared imaging to monitor food production and quality, and sensor systems for planting and irrigation.

Construction – Includes scanning site topography, laser bar-code readers to inventory materials, laser distance measuring and alignment, and three-dimensional analysis to track the progress of construction.

Engineering, microtechnology, and nanotechnology
– Uses lasers in the manufacture of electrical devices, motors, engines, semiconductor chips, circuits, and computers; via photolithography, photonics is central to production.

Environmental technology – Uses ultraviolet Doppler optical absorption spectroscopy (UV-DOAS) to monitor air quality; uses fast Fourier transform analysis to monitor particulate matter in effluents released from stacks.

Geographic information systems and global positioning
– Uses optics and photonics in imaging and image processing to refine atmospheric and space-based images.

Information technology – Uses optics for data storage, ultrafast data switching, and (especially) transmission of data across fiber-optic networks.

Chemical technology
– Relies on molecular optical spectroscopy for analysis and on ultra-short laser pulses to induce fluorescence; chemical vapor deposition and plasma etching support photonics thin film applications.

Transportation – Uses optics for monitoring exhaust emissions to ensure the integrity of shipping containers arriving from foreign ports, and navigation with ring laser gyroscopes .

Homeland security – DNA scanning, laser forensics, retinal scanning, identification of dangerous substances, optical surveillance.

Manufacturing
– Laser welding, drilling, and cutting; precision measurements.

Location, Location, Location

Friday, June 17th, 2011

GPS MapIn the world of real estate, the mantra is “location, location, location.” You might say the same of Geospatial Technology.

Almost every aspect of our daily lives has some kind of location component. As Phillip Davis, director of the National Geospatial Technology Center recently noted in an article in U.S. News & World Report, everything from navigating an unfamiliar neighborhood to locating the world’s most wanted terrorist involves Geospatial Technology.

“They couldn’t have found Osama bin Laden without it,” Davis told U.S. News & World Report, referring to the recent U.S. Navy SEALs raid on bin Laden’s compound hideout in Pakistan. “The world is so interconnected today, and everything is based on spatial relationships. It is one of our nation’s essential core tools.”

The article goes on to note that Geospatial Technology specifically refers to equipment used in visualization, measurement, and analysis of the earth’s features, typically involving such systems as GPS (global positioning systems), GIS (geographical information systems), and RS (remote sensing). It is widely used in military applications and homeland security, but is also pervasive in the fields of land use, flood plain mapping and environmental protection.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Geospatial Technology is a high-growth industry in both the public and private sectors (including the telecommunications, utilities and transportation industries as well as federal, state and local governments). There are approximately 600,000 U.S. workers in Geospatial Technology today, a number that is expected to reach more than 850,000 by 2018, according to Davis, a professor of computer science at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, where the National Geospatial Technology Center is based.

And, as he told U.S. News & World Report, the career possibilities are wide-ranging. “You have people who work in surveying, who map out where a shopping center or street is going to be, and those involved in your local property appraisals. [Geospatial Technology] is also used in law enforcement to locate crimes and for fire response and in disaster management – before, during and after. It is used to locate water resources, or in public health to track the spread of disease. It’s used by the guys who drive around for Google Earth. It’s very high impact.”

You can find more information about Geo Tech careers and educational opportunities at the GeoTech website.

Robotics Conversation Continues

Friday, June 10th, 2011

This week, we continue our conversation with Donald McCoy about the many ways that Robotics can inform and inspire students and educators alike, when it comes to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curricula.

Mr. McCoy is a retired engineer whose second career focuses on helping educators make the most of robotics in their classroom instruction. This week, he shares resources and advice for teachers who want to use robotics to energize their programs.

What advice do you have for teachers who would like to gain access to robotics resources for their classrooms?

My advice for both teachers and administrators is to contact their local university K-12 Outreach programs. Many higher education programs are providing professional development in these areas. They are also providing after-school and weekend academy programs for middle- and high-school students. Government programs sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation are also supporting professional development for teachers. One example is NASA NEON (NASA Educators Online Network).

What other specific resources are available to assist teachers?

There are many resources available supporting STEM and robotics programs. A few that are directly linked to higher-education institutions include the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy where teachers will find numerous on-line lesson plans, among other great resources. Likewise, the Tufts University Center for Engineering Educational Outreach offers curriculum content, teacher support resources, newsletters and other activities.

If I am a teacher looking at the coming school year, where would you suggest I start gathering information about robotics curriculum?

I would first suggest that teachers seek the support of their school administration teams. In many cases, administrators are aware of local schools and programs already engaged in robotics and STEM programs. A strong support network can often provide ready-made curriculum, lesson plans, start-up resources, and most of all, ongoing mentoring.

In terms of ready-made curriculum, I would suggest starting with the following:

Carnegie Mellon University, K-12 curriculum. Lego Education is another top provider of robotics and STEM programs, which target students from elementary level to high school. The product for elementary students is called LEGO Education WeDo Robotics Construction Set.

And, just to recap a question we asked last week, what aspects of the classroom robotics experience translate into the work environment?

All of the robotics projects [discussed here] demonstrate concepts and applications that are encountered every day in the workplace. Projects specifically help students develop skills in critical thinking, problem-solving and teamwork, among other valuable areas. Today’s employers are looking for behaviors that effectively translate into leadership, time management, communications and responsibility, because these are the very qualities that turn students into employees who are critical thinkers, problem-solvers and team players.

Robotics in the Classroom

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

Robotics are essential to our economy and our workplaces. As a special report in Bloomberg Businessweek noted last year, in addition to playing a key role in manufacturing and other established industries, robotics are essential to developing industries, including companies that produce wind turbines, solar panels and advanced batteries and the automobiles they power.

Robotics also play a valuable role in the classroom. We talked with Donald McCoy about the value of robotics as a teaching tool. A retired IBM electrical engineer, Mr. McCoy last year launched his own company, Donald McCoy and Associates, to help demonstrate how robotics can be used to inspire both students and educators in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum.

1) Why is there interest in robotics for teaching STEM content? What is the value?
The value is in increased learning. We know that most students learn and stay engaged longer with topics they are interested in; robotics is clearly one of those topics. Indirectly, the entertainment industry has helped spark the interests in STEM with popular high-tech science-fiction projects. For example, people have been fascinated with robotics for decades. From Star Trek to Star Wars, many students have entered engineering schools in hopes of developing the next sophisticated robot or Go-Go Gadget. As a result, STEM industry leaders are seeking students that have been trained to be problem-solvers and innovators to take on new global challenges, such as life sciences, energy management, and technologies to advance our social well-being and needs.

2) How does integrating a robotics kit/project into a curriculum impact students? Short term benefits? Long term gains?

Curriculum that has been designed with lesson plans that include robotics technologies and/or project-based instruction has been proven effective in developing hands-on experiences, self-esteem, grade performance, communications, and teamwork. Robotics kits are very versatile with components suitable for many K-12 science, technology, and math lab and classroom projects.

The short-term benefits include the immediate gratification of success in completing assigned projects and the challenge of working in teams to solve problems and to be creative.

The long term gain is that students start building a personal inventory of experiences, usage of tools, applied equations, and collaboration much earlier in their development cycle. Frankly, even if a career in STEM is not desired by the student, the applied math, problem-solving, and logical thinking will help in building life skills.

3) What kinds of standards can be met with a robotics project in the classroom?

There are many robotics projects and applications that can be applied to ‘standard course of studies’ in science and technology and mathematics as defined nationally and internationally. Nearly any curriculum that includes a lab experiment can take advantage of using a robotics central processing unit for data collection, calculations, and/or sensor technologies to increase STEM learning. For example, there are robotics kit sensor technologies that detect and monitor soil moisture pH levels, ultraviolet light, temperature, and conductivity. The collected data can be graphed, analyzed, and reported on using real-world advanced methods. By integrating the appropriate robotics technologies into traditional classroom and lab projects, educators provide students with an opportunity to learn about research, data analysis, technologies, and engineering practices while adding excitement to learning.

4) Looking ahead, what aspects of this experience could translate to a work environment?

All robotics and STEM projects are designed to translate into real-world work experiences. The projects demonstrate real-world concepts and applications. The projects help develop student skills in critical thinking, problem-solving, hand-on experiences, and teamwork. It is important to cultivate and nurture sound behaviors in leadership, time management, effective communications, and responsibility early. Today’s employers are seeking well-rounded students that are critical thinkers, problem solvers, and team players.