Active Learning in Optics and Photonics

Creativity is well-understood to be one of the essential characteristics for artists, but it is equally important for scientists. So that raises the following question: How do you keep the brightest and most creative students interested in pursuing a career in physics as they enter the university, and at the same time impart real conceptual understanding so that they have a proper “canvas” on which to start their work throughout those careers?

That was a question discussed over 10 years ago by representatives of UNESCO, the UNESCO Category I Centre ICTP (International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste) and the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE), at a meeting in Trieste hosted by the late Gallieno Denardo.  Noting that  light science is an ideal subject to stimulate interest in STEM subjects in a classroom setting, the answer from that meeting was to develop a “training the trainer” program called Active Learning in Optics and Photonics, or ALOP, to especially help teachers in developing countries engage their students more effectively. It wasn’t a fix for the often low salaries of teaching professionals compared to those offered elsewhere, but it was important not to give students added incentives to leave physics.

SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs attending an ALOP in Delhi, India. Credit: ALOP

SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs attending an ALOP in Delhi, India. Credit: ALOP

Since Gallieno had no intention of leaving Trieste to go globe-trotting around the world he quickly passed this idea on to me, suggesting that I take his place in a meeting in Manila with Minella (that trips me up even today) Alarcon, the UNESCO Science and Math Programme Specialist, and original ALOP Director, as well as some of the team that would be assembling there to try things out.  I’m very grateful to him for that suggestion as working with the ALOP team resulted in new and wonderful friendships and connections I don’t think I would have had otherwise. It was also my first introduction to the optics community, a community that I have enjoyed working with immensely ever since. You never know in life….

In Manila with Minella one thing was obvious: The cost-to-effect ratio using optics and photonics was relatively small and most of the necessary equipment could be obtained or built in even the poorest countries. No optical rails?  Meters sticks and putty work in most cases for the classroom. Low-cost equipment actually has an advantage of sorts: it avoids “black-box” solutions and demonstrates to students how easy it can be in certain cases to coax quantitative information from Nature. Not an extra “fact” for them to absorb but a belief that could stick with them. ALOP is very adaptable to local conditions and so remains “relevant” across different cultures.  To date, the manual has been translated into French, Spanish and Arabic.

Part of the strategy that leads to ALOP’s success is its encouragement of students to construct the knowledge from their own observations, guided by a “facilitator” (rather than a “teacher”) whose role it is to lead them from observation to discovery. This process—known as active- or inquiry-based learning– keeps students engaged, which means they are using their brains in the classroom, not waiting to switch them on the day before an exam.  We often refer to ALOP and similar programmes as being both “hands-on” and “minds-on.”  The biggest problem we have with training teachers in this method is to get them to stop lecturing!  That is an attribute for which they have a special propensity, even at home (if I hadn’t grown up with teacher-parents I wouldn’t have known that). There is another reason ALOP is so successful and that is that some reasonable fraction of teachers—especially in secondary schools—are teaching outside the area of their competence for any of a variety of reasons, and ALOP workshops can give them an understanding of light sciences that they perhaps never properly obtained. That in itself can be a great help to their students.

How do you measure if the students’ minds are really engaged?  Simple– you just need to buy a decibel meter (the kind the city government used to employ when our band played in public…back when it still made sense to have a comb in my back pocket) and look for a high signal. That means they are actively learning and engaged and not day-dreaming about something or someone more interesting while the teacher is lecturing. Plenty of time to do that in history class. Of course, there is also a test, based on results from physics education research, to gauge how well they (and hence we) do.

Observation time at an ALOP in Kathmandu, Nepal. Credit: ALOP.

Observation time at an ALOP in Kathmandu, Nepal. Credit: ALOP.

Ten years later ALOP workshops have reached close to a thousand teachers from roughly fifty developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. They are typically lecturers in universities as well as some secondary school teachers of physics.  Follow-up activities, in which trained trainers train others locally are an important part of the overall strategy and this has been very successful in a number of regions around the world.  Along the way the program has benefitted from additional support from the Optical Society, the US National Academies of Science, Essilor Corp., the International Commission for Optics, and the European Physical Society, amongst others.

ALOP is one of the IYL 2015 global outreach activities this year, with workshops taking place in Indonesia, Mauritius, Mexico, South Africa, Bolivia, Panama, and Pakistan, the latter home to one of the most courageous advocates ever for the right of girls to an education, Malala.

It is a treat to work with enthusiastic teachers and optics researchers from around the world and to see their dedication. We always leave with a renewed enthusiasm and dedication ourselves! Further information on ALOP, including its wonderful team of facilitators, and its teaching modules can be found at

niemelaJoseph J. Niemela is a Senior Scientist and Programme Specialist at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy where he heads its Office of External Activities (OEA) as well as the Applied Physics group. He is also coordinating the IYL 2015 Global Secretariat which is hosted at the ICTP, and directs the ALOP programme together with Jean-Paul Ngome Abiaga at UNESCO.


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